Once You Watch an Ernie Gehr Film, You’ll Never See the World the Same Way

Movies have been around for well over a century, and for roughly half that time, the American filmmaker Ernie Gehr has — playfully, thoughtfully, beautifully — shown us just how far out, exciting and liberating they can be.

Gehr makes moving images that open your mind and pleasurably rearrange your thoughts. His movies tend to be short, have sound and, these days, were shot in digital. By conventional standards not a lot happens; they don’t tell stories per se, even if they say a great deal. What interests Gehr is light, energy, shape, color, rhythm, time, space and the medium’s plasticity. He chops the image up, twirls it around, makes it sing. You could call his work abstract, experimental or avant-garde, but a more fitting description is that it’s just, well, cinematic.

A contested, oft-abused word, cinematic can be fuzzy shorthand to describe images that look and move the way we think movies look and move (or should). Gehr challenges such thinking, which is exemplified by one of his most significant early works, “Serene Velocity” (1970), a silent color film that doesn’t have a single soul or any camera moves in it. Instead, partly by changing the focal lengths on a zoom lens, Gehr created an illusion of movement in which a precisely centered shot of a college basement hall becomes a trippy, propulsive, at times eyeball-popping inquiry into film form. He’s still challenging conventions just as trippily.

On Friday, the one-week series “Ernie Gehr: Mechanical Magic” opens at the Museum of Modern Art. Curated by Francisco Valente, this dynamic sampler includes both newer work and restored rarities that have been arranged into six programs. Gehr, who is 82 and lives in New York, is scheduled to appear at each show. MoMA is a fitting place to check out his movies, which in their formal rigor, aesthetic concerns and sheer visual pow make them ideal counterparts to the abstract and nonfigurative work hanging on the museum’s walls.

Gehr started making films in the 1960s after serving in the Army and landing in New York, where he chanced upon the work by the avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage, a titan of the art. Although Gehr ended up going in a different artistic direction, he was excited both by Brakhage’s work and by the very idea that he, too, might make movies. In an era in which most of us have a video camera in our back pocket, it is impossible to overstate just how mind-blowing it once was for many aspiring filmmakers to realize that they didn’t need to be in Hollywood or have stars, crews and astronomical budgets.

Instead, if a would-be filmmaker like Gehr was lucky enough to be in New York in the 1960s — then an epicenter of off-Hollywood cine-adventurousness — he could even borrow a camera. That’s exactly what Gehr did after he visited the Millennium Film Workshop, which was then run by the filmmaker Ken Jacobs and lent equipment for free. Gehr soon had a camera in hand that used 8-millimeter film (a precursor to Super-8), a cheaper alternative to 16-millimeter. Lightweight and easy to use, these cameras made making movies on your own entirely doable.

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