If the moment I started studying with Peter Hutton had a color, it would be cerulean. I don’t know which other could articulate the curious alloy of surging energy and contagious calm that he brought to his teaching. If I were of a certain persuasion, I would call the ensuing feeling oceanic, and chuckle at the way it loosely evokes imagery from his film At Sea, which blew my mind and those of all of my classmates, but the implicit over-seriousness of describing it as such verges on hero worship, a counterproductive habit that Peter taught me to work beyond. Imperfect as the metaphor is, invoking a color of electrifying clarity will have to do for this belated eulogy for the teacher who helped me move from darkness into light—or, better put, who helped me locate the light in darkness—more so than any other teacher. He did so with humbleness, grace, and simplicity, qualities that I believe any teacher worth their salt ought to strive for. Peter embodied these qualities, and so many more, and I am eternally grateful to have studied with him.
When I first met Peter—all of his students at Bard referred to him by first name, as we did to most of our professors, barring the occasional eminence who would not permit us to do so—I stood at a creative crossroads. I use the word “stood” deliberately: I stood there nearly paralyzed, not making work. I had spent my first two years as a film student working in digital and, to a lesser extent, analog video. Initially infatuated with these media, I had fallen completely out of love with them by the end of my second year, which had the unhappy coincidence of being the time when I declared myself a film major. The roots the following misconception are at this point ultimately mysterious to me, but, at the time, for whatever reason, I didn’t realize that there was a moving image culture outside of video production, meaning I didn’t realize that making movies on film was still a thing, was still a world, with its own culture, directions, and diversities. I had so thoroughly enmeshed myself in a jokey, conceptual video-making that it got ontological: I based a portion of my identity on being a video-maker, one with an admittedly narrow range consisting of mostly found footage and the odd performance tape here and there. Once I realized that I didn’t want to continue making this sort of work, I entered into a period of creative paralysis, in which I was so (misguidedly) unhappy with the work I had made that I didn’t want to make any work at all.
I know that this makes no sense. I like to think that had my own cognitive distortions been evinced to me at the time, I would have seen them for what they are, but I’ll never know. With seven years of perspective, I see that most of what was going on for me then (i.e. creative confusion bordering on temporary paralysis) had everything to do with the struggles and anxieties of early adulthood, of trying to figure out who I wanted to be, trite as that may sound. In the first months of my twenties, my uncritical and impressionable mind had a real knack for collapsing the boundary between who I was and what kind of filmmaker I was aspiring to be. But that’s about as far as this retrospective elucidation exercise will get me. Peter taught me that the counterforce to suffering, if there is any, isn’t solely reflection. It is also aesthetics, the kaleidoscope of experience.
But he didn’t teach me this by telling me, by codifying it in some lesson. He helped me see it firsthand. The reason this remembrance hinges so much on my biography is to provide context for the deep-seated resistance to movie-making that I brought to Peter’s class. Having already illuminated its irrational grounds, I now look back on this resistance incredulously. I cannot believe that I wasn’t more open to studying with Peter, but to misrepresent the past would be a disservice to everyone involved, especially because it wouldn’t allow me to share the quiet power of Peter’s teaching.
When I got to his class, I couldn’t make work. I had drawn myself into a prison of doubt—self-doubt, doubt in the process—in which I made it practically impossible for myself to work. For an artist or a filmmaker or a carpenter or a coder, anyone who enjoys making things, being in a place like this one is dark. When your work is your source of fulfillment and vitality, losing your connection with it breeds pervasive darkness. The first thing that Peter said to me that flipped a switch was “I want to help you locate a ‘voice’.” I can still see his handwriting in my mind. It was on my midterm comment. I was failing his class because, in my almost perpetually panicked state, I hadn’t done any of the work. With patience and understanding, he guided me out of this stuck place. His first step was to show, plainly, that he cared about my growth as a filmmaker. This generosity of heart; impossible to capture in prose, it has to be felt; was what I needed to start making work again.
He then introduced me to work by filmmakers to which he knew I would respond well. The most notable of whom were Nathaniel Dorsky and Jonas Mekas, two filmmakers whose work, along with Peter’s, taught me that filmmaking can be poetry: lyrical, polyvalent, and open. Their work served as a model for my senior thesis film, a project which Peter advised. He had reinvigorated my filmmaking by introducing me to Dorsky and Mekas’ diaristic approach. I never would have been able to complete such a project without his guidance. I don’t think that any other teacher would have known how to respond constructively and caringly to my resistance. That is, I don’t think any other teacher could have helped me out of my confusion-induced creative paralysis and into a place where I was able to complete a film that showed publicly both on-campus and at a few small festivals in New York.
It is relevant here that he accepted the label experimental for his work but graciously rejected the label avant-garde, saying that what he was actually trying to do was take film back to its origins in which the meditative experience of looking at a carefully photographed image in silence was sufficient. The relevance lies in that his guiding me back towards those origins was integral to my getting unstuck and moving ahead. He was fond of saying that he loved watching paint dry. Correspondingly, there might be little to no movement in many of the shots of his films, but that restraint, one which is born from honoring the early days of cinema, opens up an entirely new space, one in which a viewer’s vision can flourish and whole being be refreshed, as I was by his teaching.