Home > Essays > Introduction: A Conversation between Robert Gardner and Peter Matthiessen
Published: Tue Jul 1 2014
Eva Lundsager, We are quiet (nowhere to hide) (detail), 2021, oil on canvas
Introduction: A Conversation between Robert Gardner and Peter Matthiessen

Editor’s Note: Filmmaker and photographer Robert Gardner was a longtime contributor and a generous supporter of AGNI. After seeing our issue #66, in which—an AGNI first—we had included a CD of Welsh tenor Timothy Evans, Bob approached us with a proposal. He had made a short documentary film, Good to Pull, of AGNI artist Michael Mazur in his studio, using ink and glass to produce a monoprint—the medium he was most famous for. Gardner wondered if we might not be interested in publishing the film as a DVD supplement to issue #68, whose art insert would then feature broadsides in the same series: Robert Pinsky’s translations of Dante illustrated by Mazur. Of course we did not hesitate. And the result was a compelling fusion of expression and process from three supremely gifted artists (four if we count Dante Alighieri). A few years later Bob approached us with another irresistible offer. He had been cleaning out his office and had found a large number of previously unpublished photographs of poet Robert Lowell. It turns out that Bob had been the photographer for the author photo of Lowell’s historic collection Life Studies (1959), and these were images from the same session. We learned later that Gardner, a member of the prominent Gardner family of Boston, was also a cousin of Lowell’s. A stunning suite of his images was published as the portfolio of AGNI 75.

Robert Gardner, who died on June 21st of this year, had a career rich and influential across a wide spectrum. Aside from making his award-winning ethnographic documentaries and publishing books, he also founded and ran the Film Study Center at Harvard. We cannot do justice here to achievements and legacy—what we can give (his last offer to us, made shortly before his death) is a short film of Bob in conversation with writer Peter Matthiessen, another legend who died this year. The conversation is introduced by our poetry reader and area film maven Erin Trahan.

For Robert Gardner, a 1961 trip to New Guinea led to so much more than his landmark first feature film, Dead Birds. It launched a major career. And though in subsequent decades he traveled to nearly every continent with film crews, exercising his keen cinematic eye on groundbreaking ethnographic documentaries, he continued to wrestle with his time as witness and interpreter of the Dani people and their disappearing Neolithic cultural practices. He had found the Dani living at a fraught historical juncture—the shadows of modernity were just encroaching on the old ways. He registered the tension in his work and incorporated the implications in subsequent projects.

That original journey stirred enduring questions in Gardner and others. Indeed, the raw material gathered on location gave Gardner and his ascending crew, which included Peter Matthiessen, professional “legs” that took form in articles, essays, books, and other films.

Matthiessen’s nonfiction book Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in the Stone Age came out in 1962. Dead Birds came out two years later. In 1988 Gardner returned to the region for the first time. Footage from that later visit is referenced in his 2007 collage book Making Dead Birds: Chronicle of a Film, and some of it can be found in the 2011 Dead Birds re-issue, as a DVD extra. Documentary Educational Resources will release a stand-alone follow-up film, Dead Birds Re-Encountered, later this fall.

Gardner served as the founding director of the Harvard Film Study Center from 1957 to 1997, and in the 1970s and early ’80s he hosted nearly 100 episodes of The Screening Room, an interview-style television program with independent filmmakers as his guests. Episodes ran ninety minutes and often broadcast clips or entire films that would never have made it onto screens outside of major cities. The show has no peer and, surprisingly, no contemporary.

In keeping with the constant probing initiated by Dead Birds and his openness to film discourse, Gardner sought out Matthiessen for a conversation about what the project meant to him. Their 1996 talk, edited to twenty-five minutes, is now exclusively available through AGNI. It offers yet another glimpse into the film and the men behind it.

“We were privileged in ways that very, very few people ever have been, to step back in human history,” Gardner (of the longer hair, on the right) says to Matthiessen (of the darker brow, on the left). They weigh their intent for objectivity, which they attempted to ensure by camping a distance from the Dani villages, against the inevitability of subjectivity—this dilemma plagued Gardner and remains a central concern in the field of nonfiction cinema. They also talk about how conscious each of them was of the Dani’s looming demise.

Matthiessen tells a story of observing trash being thrown over a cliff on a Hopi Reservation—how at first it jarred him until he realized, “That pile has always been there.” The only difference was that now the pile had glaring bits of orange and blue plastic in it. Without spelling it out, Matthiessen concedes that no culture is immune from the press of modernity nor should it be judged more or less harshly: “They move along too, they need conveniences too,” he says.

Gardner expresses particular grief over his recent discovery that now the Dani could “see the impossibility of living out their lives, except sentimentally.” The soon-to-be-released Re-Encounter has awkward footage of tourists photographing staged rituals and trying on traditional Dani garb. “You said something that was really quite wise,” Gardner says to Matthiessen, “‘You really shouldn’t go back to something that was so good.’”

Eventually, Matthiessen works the conversation around to age and perspective. “You know people say, and I think there’s small reason to doubt it, that the lyric sense of life as seen in good poetry is really a young man’s vision.” He suggests that in youth, or perhaps he is referring to themselves in 1961, “you’re more emotional, you’re more romantic….That lyric sense may cripple your maturity in which you actually understand.”

Gardner was unwilling to settle on an understanding, despite the desire he confesses to Matthiessen for “some kind of capping, closing to this chapter…” This is exactly what will keep his life’s work open to exploration for decades to come.

Erin Trahan is a writer and editor specializing in film and travel. She has written about movies for WBUR, The Boston Globe, MovieMaker Magazine, NewEnglandFilm.com, and elsewhere and has co-authored five Frommer’s Guides to Montreal and Quebec City. As the editor of The Independent, an online magazine about film, and its related books on filmmaking, she often serves on film festival panels and juries. She has also moderated several seasons of the all-documentary series The DocYard. By night, she writes poems and essays and reads poetry submissions for AGNI. She holds an MFA in poetry from the Bennington Writing Seminars. (updated 10/2014)

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