… That viewers have been trained, and have trained themselves, to feel that landscape is not a legitimate subject for even a ten-minute film, experience provides us a measure of how different our sensibilities are from those of art lovers of a previous century. Indeed, when I ask viewers immediately after a screening of Fog Line what they’ve just seen, a frequent response is a sardonic, “Nothing!”
… While most audiences of Fog Line see, at most, only a foggy green landscape — what they define as “Nothing!” — the film offers a good bit more to the patient, discerning eye, both compositionally and as an experience in time. What one sees and can identify in Fog Line depends on the relative thickness of the fog, which gradually clears but does not disappear .
[line break added] At the beginning of the film, the image is virtually abstract — a milky green rectangle — and this abstraction is emphasized by the fact that Gottheim provides no pre-image credits. During approximately the first third of Fog Line, the only motion is the very slight clearing of the fog, most noticeable in the center of the image where several shapes gradually become identifiable as trees.
[line break added] This tiny alteration is enough to reveal, after a minute or so, that the milky green space is in fact a landscape trisected horizontally by several high-tension wires (hence the word “Line” in the title, which is not “Fogline” but suggests two separate categories of image). The viewer’s gradual identification of the image as a landscape provides the film’s easiest metaphor: as the fog clears in the image, enabling viewers to identify the scene, they are no longer “in a fog” about what they are seeing, at least on a literal level.
Once the simple identification is made, however, most first-time viewers, assuming the cinematic riddle has been solved, “space out” and as a result, do not see a variety of other minimal, but quite suggestive, developments. The most “dramatic” of these begins approximately a third of the way through the film and is confined to the lower third of the frame (between the bottom wires and the lower frame-line): two horses walk slowly through the image, entering from the lower right to graze their way across the field between the camera and the trees in the center of the composition, and exit the image on the left.
[line break added] In those instances when audiences have assured me that they’ve seen “Nothing!” during Fog Line, my follow-up question — “How many of you saw the horses?” –is generally greeted with disbelief and consternation. Because of the relatively low-light conditions in which Gottheim filmed the scene, the Fog Line imagery is rather grainy, and as a result the tiny, distant horses are just barely visible. Nevertheless, once the identification is made, the presence of the horses is perfectly obvious, as all viewers grudgingly admit during rescreenings of the film.
[line break added] The widespread failure to see the horse during the first screening reveals not only the viewers’ inability to see anything of interest in a “landscape film” but also their further refusal to consider the filmmaker as the designer of the image. In fact, Gottheim’s particular composition of the foggy space of countryside was determined by the regular movements of horses through this space every morning. Gottheim had studied the scene for months and filmed it more than once.
… If the movement of the horses through the image defines the middle third of Fog Line, the continued gradual clearing of the fog, especially in the space between the upper wires and the upper frame-line, defines the final third which is punctuated by a bird flying through the image from left to right above the wires — a happy accident during the filming, as it echoes and balances the movement of the horses.
[line break added] Of course, those who have failed to see the horses are even less likely to notice the quick flight of the bird through the space. As the fog in the upper third of the composition thins, a faint circular shape becomes more evident just above the upper wires, to the left of center. Some viewers assume it is the sun beginning to break through.
… As the title suggests, the wires are central to Gottheim’s thinking about the scene he depicts.
… The perspectival impossibility of the Fog Line scene, evident in the comparative size of the horses and the trees, is a function of Gottheim’s decision to film with a telephoto lens, a camera technology that allows for deeper penetration into space but at the cost of flattening perspective and fictionalizing the spatial relationships within the frame.
[line break added] To the extent that we do see and measure the scene before us in Fog Line, we realize that we are seeing not Nature but photography’s transformation of it — a realization confirmed by the circular brownish dot, which indeed is not the sun but a smudge on the lens that Gottheim was fully aware of as he shot.
… As Fog Line makes clear, all that remains of an earlier concept of untouched wilderness and of the ideal, pastoral “middle state” is an illusion. “Nature,” or course, is still here, but it functions entirely within those technological systems developed to exploit it, including the “system” of motion picture production (of which 16mm, “avant-garde” filmmaking is a “trickle down” development).
[ … ]
… I have not commented on the most frequent objection viewers make to my argument that Fog Line and Sky Blue Water Light Sign are worth watching and thinking seriously about: that the amount of energy and skill necessary to make the films was minimal, especially compared to what goes into “real” movies and “real” art — an effort so minimal, in fact, as to be nearly an insult. All Gottheim had to do to make his film was to buy (or borrow) a camera, walk outside his home, mount the camera on a tripod, compose the image, and turn the camera on and off.
… As the privileged beneficiaries of an already accomplished industrial revolution, Gottheim and Murphy automatically inherited access to the movie camera and its attendant apparatus and, therefore, the opportunity to make landscape imagery almost at will. What had come to be rare — as rare perhaps as the ability to paint well had been a century before — was the concept of meditating on nature with the patience and care demanded by Fog Line and Sky Blue Water Light Sign.