Amiel Courtin-Wilson is that most unclassifiable of Australian directors. Since completing his first film, the documentary Chasing Buddha (2000), at the age of nineteen, his subsequent works have straddled the boundaries between documentary, narrative filmmaking and the art world, while employing ever more intensive modes of collaboration. The Silent Eye (2016) represents an uncompromising distillation of these tendencies: it is a portrait of three improvised performances by free-jazz pianist Cecil Taylor and Japanese dancer Min Tanaka, held at the former’s Brooklyn home. Commissioned by New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art as part of a 2016 career retrospective on Taylor, The Silent Eye may find its most natural place in the world of installation art. However, this did not stop intrepid programmers from selecting the film for screenings at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art later that year, and at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), Hobart’s Dark Mofo festival and the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2017.
There is a useful comparison to be made here between The Silent Eye and Courtin-Wilson’s other music documentary, Ben Lee: Catch My Disease (2011). The earlier film is a relatively conventional documentary, consisting of archival footage and talking-head interviews that tackle a subject whose early career success was predicated on his precocious youthfulness. Indeed, the film is at least partly concerned with charting Lee’s artistic and existential crises once he has outgrown his child-star status. The subjects of The Silent Eye could not be more different: Taylor (born 1929) and Tanaka (1945) are closer to the end of their respective careers than they are to the beginning. Each is, in his own way, a late-stage master who has refined his craft to the point of minimalism, Taylor reducing the rhythmic intricacies of his early work to a more abstracted and sparse deployment, while Tanaka has withdrawn from trained technique, developing an increasingly site-specific, interpretative approach to dance. The Silent Eye is a nexus point for these intersecting trajectories. The site of the collaboration, Taylor’s small Fort Greene apartment, is adorned with the accumulated details of a life: framed photographs, posters, small artworks, piles of books. Taylor sits at his grand piano – its keys battered and stripped – his fingers pealing out clusters of sound, his eyes on Tanaka, who occasionally rests his hand on the piano lid before thrusting his arms to the ceiling, jerking, neck straining. The subject of the film, if there is one, is the recording of the most intangible and elemental stuff: movement, sound and interaction, the interplay between Taylor and Tanaka a kind of physically manifested call-and-response.
The film’s title perhaps refers to the camera’s presence. While it may be silent, the camera remains very much a participant in proceedings. Shot by Germain McMicking, who was also director of photography on Courtin-Wilson’s Bastardy (2008) and Hail (2011), the film has a brightly exposed digital image and a muted colour palette of greys, creams and browns, with occasional bursts of green delivered courtesy of a window plant or Taylor’s change in shirt; indeed, the costume changes are the only obvious markers of the shift in days as the film draws on. Occasionally, McMicking includes both Taylor and Tanaka in his widescreen frame, but usually keeps them separate. The camera draws towards Taylor, an open-mouthed grin on his face, watchful eyes locked on Tanaka; the latter’s own face is an expressive instrument, the intensity of his focus occasionally realised via a rictus.
The Silent Eye leaves plenty of space for the viewer to contemplate the process of its assembly. McMicking’s is the sole camera credit, and his mobile, often-close framing offers opportunities for editors Alena Lodkina and Courtin-Wilson himself to graft their footage asynchronously onto Taylor’s musical accompaniment. This may detract from the documentary’s claim to objective veracity, but it offers scope for the film to enter into a more abstract and impressionistic register. McMicking uses his digital camera’s shallow depth of field to expressive effect as it approaches then retreats, racking focus to render the image a shimmering liquid abstraction. Courtin-Wilson and Lodkina then use McMicking’s stylised shots as construction blocks to bookend each of Taylor’s musical performances. These sequences are rendered in slow motion, accompanied by Rosalind Hall’s ambient soundscape, which integrates the noises of the subway, rain and thunder, and blasts of caterwauling saxophone. These sequences essentially find the film drawing its breath – as, perhaps, are Tanaka and Taylor, their eyes squeezed closed as though in ecstatic rhapsody before launching into their next performance. In a structural sense, these lulls add dynamic range to the resulting work.
These aspects of the film’s constructedness raise the question of its director’s contribution to the collaborative process; The Silent Eye does, after all, end with the credit ‘A film by Amiel Courtin-Wilson’, which appears on screen before Taylor and Tanaka’s credit as ‘performers’. Perhaps Courtin-Wilson’s chief directorial achievement was realising the scenario in the first place. But we feel his presence in the room: standing behind McMicking, guiding his movements and framing, as the small shake of the camera reminds us of the human hand directing its gaze. The film allows small details to accrue, as the camera investigates not just Taylor’s and Tanaka’s physicalities, but also the forum of their performance. The knowledge that the setting is Taylor’s home adds to the intimate scale of the work; the camera moves in close to investigate framed photographs, handwritten papers, tendrils of smoke drifting upwards from incense. Dead leaves on the wooden floorboards and the bare leaves of trees framed against the exterior winter light offer visual counterpoints to Taylor’s and Tanaka’s ageing bodies, while the confined dimensions of the room provide a shaping limitation on Tanaka’s movements. Successive camera angles provide new perspectives on the space, revealing Taylor’s clothing hanging from a rack against a wall and, later, his bed.
The degree of access provided is a testament to the trust shared between Courtin-Wilson, Taylor and Tanaka. But this should come as no surprise: throughout his directorial career, Courtin-Wilson has displayed a remarkable commitment to his subjects. His first film, Chasing Buddha, depended on a degree of familial access; the documentary is a portrait of his aunt, Robina Courtin, a Buddhist nun who provides spiritual guidance to death-row inmates in a Kentucky prison. His next two features, Bastardy and Hail, are somewhat inverse propositions: the former yields its drama from the raconteurism and confronting life circumstances of Aboriginal actor Jack Charles, while the latter develops a sense of documentary realism from the performances of its central pair, Daniel P Jones and Leanne Letch, who play unflinchingly unglamorous versions of themselves. In both cases, these films could only have been made with a development process spanning many years.See Tom Redwood, ‘To Capture Life: The 5th Biennial Bigpond Adelaide Film Festival’, Senses of Cinema, issue 59, May 2011, <http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/festival-reports/to-capture-life-the-5th-biennial-bigpond-adelaide-film-festival/>; and Pamela Cohn, ‘Amiel Courtin-Wilson and Daniel P. Jones’, BOMB, 12 July 2011, <http://bombmagazine.org/article/5543/>, both accessed 8 February 2018. Courtin-Wilson’s most recent narrative film, Ruin (co-directed with Michael Cody, 2013), takes the degree of immersion to another level: the film was shot with a non-professional, Khmer-speaking cast over two three-week stretches in Cambodia.Stephanie Bunbury, ‘Australian Filmmakers Find Love Among the Ruin’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 September 2013, <http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/australian-filmmakers-find-love-among-the-ruin-20130904-2t487.html>, accessed 8 February 2018. The international dimension of this last film, and the hardships its characters endure, may have the potential to seem exploitative. Certainly, his artistic project demands that his subjects be completely unguarded. As he gravitates towards marginal and vulnerable subjects, it can be difficult to parse out the creator’s ethical responsibility and artistic justifications from questions of exploitation and appropriation.
In one sense, Courtin-Wilson is on safer ground with The Silent Eye, which strips its concerns to the barest of essences – its vision resides in the corporeal, in the realm of pure artistry. There is, of course, great personal vulnerability on display in such a work, but Courtin-Wilson has two fellow travellers in Tanaka and Taylor, who have been equally committed to their own lifelong projects. It is no surprise that Courtin-Wilson finds himself drawn to Taylor, and it is likely that the director is describing something about himself when he praises the pianist for ‘the fact he hasn’t compromised one iota – ever – over the course of his career’.Amiel Courtin-Wilson, quoted in Garry Maddox, ‘Bold New Projects for Amiel Courtin-Wilson and More Australian Film News’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 April 2016, <http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/bold-new-projects-for-amiel-courtinwilson-and-more-australian-film-news-20160412-go4d59.html>, accessed 8 February 2018. Courtin-Wilson has never been one to take the easy road in his cinematic ventures. While The Silent Eye forgoes the most harrowing extremes of Hail and Ruin, it swings in the opposite direction, taking the most spartan elements from which a feature film might take shape and leading them to a reductio ad absurdum resolution.
Stylistically, The Silent Eye recalls Courtin-Wilson’s earlier films in their tendency to temper experiential intensity with excursions into lyrical abstraction, suggesting the possibility of transcendence. It is through this interplay that the filmmaker aligns his practice with his stated international influences: we can see, in his oeuvre, the impressionistic intensity of Philippe Grandrieux and Claire Denis, the pseudo-documentary immersion of Roberto Minervini, and the surface stylisation of Michael Mann.Amiel Courtin-Wilson, in Mike Retter, ‘Ruin with Amiel Courtin-Wilson’, Meat Bone Express – Filmmaking Podcast, episode 2, 23 November 2016, <https://soundcloud.com/user-89611624/meat-bone-express-ep-2-ruin-with-amiel-courtin-wilson>, accessed 8 February 2018. In a 2016 interview with Adelaide filmmaker Mike Retter, Courtin-Wilson discusses Ruin but, in so doing, reveals a set of artistic concerns that extend to the now-realised The Silent Eye – he describes his collaborative practice on the earlier film as deriving from ‘gesture and the body’.ibid. If Courtin-Wilson’s long-cherished Jisoe (Eddie Martin, 2005) provided the template for his earlier documentary work,Travis Johnson, ‘Amiel Courtin-Wilson: The Films That Changed My Life’, FilmInk, 29 November 2016, <https://filmink.com.au/amiel-courtin-wilson-the-films-that-changed-my-life>, accessed 8 February 2018. in retreating from characterisation with The Silent Eye, the director moves closer to the textually dense and rigorously conceptualised music documentaries of Jem Cohen.
This is not a set of influences commonly cited by Australian filmmakers – and, indeed, Courtin-Wilson’s methodology, rooted simultaneously in a durational commitment and a documentarian’s instinctual reactions, seems fundamentally at odds with an Australian film-financing regime that demands lengthy script-development phases, rather than Courtin-Wilson’s preferred workshopping and improvisation process. This was perhaps a factor in his decision to self-distribute Ruin, which remains little seen in this country as a result. It is equally unsurprising that Courtin-Wilson has chosen to continue working overseas; The Silent Eye was financed with a grant from the Robert D. Bielecki Foundation, a philanthropic arts organisation established by the eponymous New York–based tech magnate, who cites Taylor as an influence in the formation of his own worldview.Robert D Bielecki, ‘What’s Your Obligation?’, Robert D. Bielecki Foundation website, 25 November 2014, <http://rdbf.org/author/robert714/>, accessed 8 February 2018. For Courtin-Wilson, The Silent Eye is one slice of a larger artistic project dedicated to the musical luminary. The director has written a personal reflection for The Monthly recounting how he forged his relationship with Taylor and asked if he could move into the musician’s home.Amiel Courtin-Wilson, ‘Cecil Taylor’, The Monthly, April 2015, <https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2015/april/1427806800/amiel-courtin-wilson/cecil-taylor>, accessed 8 February 2018. IFFR teased The Silent Eye as ‘a forerunner to Amiel’s upcoming sci-fi time-travel biopic feature about Cecil Taylor’‘The Silent Eye’, International Film Festival Rotterdam 2017 program guide, <https://iffr.com/en/2017/films/the-silent-eye>, accessed 8 February 2018. – which may sound impossibly ambitious, but then nothing should surprise us from the director who hurled a horse from a helicopter.
For his part, speaking in 2016 about artistic expectations and commercial obligations, Courtin-Wilson said, ‘I’m much more interested in the sketches […] between the larger opus[es].’Courtin-Wilson, in Retter, op. cit. The Silent Eye may be the precursor to something altogether different, but this does not diminish the singularity of its vision, nor the scope of its achievement. As we gaze at it, we too become time travellers, transported by Courtin-Wilson, Taylor and Tanaka into another room, into a space of unconscious artistry.
|1||See Tom Redwood, ‘To Capture Life: The 5th Biennial Bigpond Adelaide Film Festival’, Senses of Cinema, issue 59, May 2011, <http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/festival-reports/to-capture-life-the-5th-biennial-bigpond-adelaide-film-festival/>; and Pamela Cohn, ‘Amiel Courtin-Wilson and Daniel P. Jones’, BOMB, 12 July 2011, <http://bombmagazine.org/article/5543/>, both accessed 8 February 2018.|
|2||Stephanie Bunbury, ‘Australian Filmmakers Find Love Among the Ruin’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 September 2013, <http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/australian-filmmakers-find-love-among-the-ruin-20130904-2t487.html>, accessed 8 February 2018.|
|3||Amiel Courtin-Wilson, quoted in Garry Maddox, ‘Bold New Projects for Amiel Courtin-Wilson and More Australian Film News’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 April 2016, <http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/bold-new-projects-for-amiel-courtinwilson-and-more-australian-film-news-20160412-go4d59.html>, accessed 8 February 2018.|
|4||Amiel Courtin-Wilson, in Mike Retter, ‘Ruin with Amiel Courtin-Wilson’, Meat Bone Express – Filmmaking Podcast, episode 2, 23 November 2016, <https://soundcloud.com/user-89611624/meat-bone-express-ep-2-ruin-with-amiel-courtin-wilson>, accessed 8 February 2018.|
|6||Travis Johnson, ‘Amiel Courtin-Wilson: The Films That Changed My Life’, FilmInk, 29 November 2016, <https://filmink.com.au/amiel-courtin-wilson-the-films-that-changed-my-life>, accessed 8 February 2018.|
|7||Robert D Bielecki, ‘What’s Your Obligation?’, Robert D. Bielecki Foundation website, 25 November 2014, <http://rdbf.org/author/robert714/>, accessed 8 February 2018.|
|8||Amiel Courtin-Wilson, ‘Cecil Taylor’, The Monthly, April 2015, <https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2015/april/1427806800/amiel-courtin-wilson/cecil-taylor>, accessed 8 February 2018.|
|9||‘The Silent Eye’, International Film Festival Rotterdam 2017 program guide, <https://iffr.com/en/2017/films/the-silent-eye>, accessed 8 February 2018.|
|10||Courtin-Wilson, in Retter, op. cit.|