Repetition and Recusion: The Films of Larry Gottheim

February 23, 2023 - 12:26pm
Posted by Jim Healy


These notes on filmmaker Larry Gottheim and his films were written by Zachary Zahos, PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Larry Gottheim will appear in person at the Friday, February 24 screening of two of his most recent works, Entanglement and Chants and Dances for Hand . The program will screen at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is free!

By Zachary Zahos

Less than one week after screening a selection of Paolo Gioli short films, the UW Cinematheque provides another opportunity to experience the work of a singular, arguably underrated avant-garde master. Furthermore, we are fortunate that the artist in question, Larry Gottheim, will be present in 4070 Vilas Hall, to introduce and answer questions about two recent (or at least recently completed) films, Chants and Dances for Hand (1991-2017) and Entanglement (2022). Some in attendance may even be able to resume conversations that began in September 2019, when Gottheim last visited campus for a similarly themed Cinematheque retrospective. But Gottheim returns to Madison not just to soak in its film culture and weather; rather, he is also here to update his film and manuscript collection at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. This process began during his last visit, and since then, piles of material have been donated, processed, and made available to researchers looking to learn more about this essential figure in American experimental cinema.

Analyzing the films of Larry Gottheim is, to be honest, a bit intimidating, given that Gottheim himself is such an eloquent and insightful critic of his own work. After all, he did earn a PhD in Comparative Literature at Yale. You can find his writings at the nicely kept website,, as well as in a forthcoming memoir, The Red Thread, a draft of which Gottheim was kind enough to send me after our acquaintance in 2019. In that book’s distilled, imagistic prose, Gottheim weaves together reflections on his personal history, aesthetics, technology, physics, philosophy, James Joyce, the list goes on. The one, bright constant threaded through the text are his films, whose motivations and resonances Gottheim deconstructs with great care and humility. Reading Gottheim on Gottheim, one detects a life lived not in cinema, but through it; the relatively slim number of references to other films and filmmakers stands in stark contrast to the network of connections Gottheim draws between each of his own works. These intra-filmography connections are less about the particulars of film form, and much more about the accrued knowledge and life experience that led him to make a film like Blues (one long, silent, meditative take) in 1969, versus the radically different Knot/Not (a barrage of superimposed, cacophonous images and sounds) fifty years later.

One implication of this analysis so far is that it is difficult to neatly package the work of Larry Gottheim. His early films, at least, are often mentioned in the same breath as other “structural films” of the 1960s and 1970s, works, like Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) and Paul Sharits’s T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1968), designed around a formal, legible structure of change. In fact, as chair of what would become Binghamton University’s Cinema Department, Gottheim hired Ernie Gehr, Ken Jacobs, and other like-minded filmmakers who would use their academic perch to experiment with the fundamentals of cinematic perception. Made during those heady Binghamton years, Gottheim’s Fog Line (1970) is a textbook example of structural film’s “gradual change” tendency. Over the course of one 400-foot, 11-minute roll of 16mm film, fog slowly lifts from a verdant clearing in upstate New York, revealing massive trees, power lines, and ghostly horses. Yet, as with any work of art that beckons repeat viewings, Fog Line does not simply employ a pre-fitted arc, from zero to full visibility. Near the end, the fog appears to encroach back into the clearing, or at least cease its withdrawal. Are we seeing a natural phenomenon, or is the film emulsion itself playing tricks with our eyes? Gottheim has referred to Fog Line as having “a capacity of not being exhaustible” — the ultimate state to which all of his films aspire.

On first blush, the two, newer films screening this week bear little in common with an early work like Fog Line. Entanglement and Chants and Dances for Hand both consist of rapidly cut, dense, impressionistic montages, replete with philosophical asides, musical interludes, and ethnographic observation. Though distinct in subject matter, these two films share with all of Gottheim’s work a transparent structural integrity, built on repetition and recursion. Entanglement pushes this to a notable extreme. This digital work cycles through an assemblage of pixelated film clips; instructional web videos; still photographs; CCTV footage from the 2022 massacre in Bucha, Ukraine; and original material by (and starring) Gottheim himself. Gottheim guides us through this thicket using act breaks, graphic match cuts, overlapping dialogue, and superimposition. Soon enough, we glean a set of ideas primarily concerning quantum mechanics (black holes, string theory, elementary particles, and “superposition” are all invoked). It is overwhelming to behold, which is perhaps why, at the halfway mark, the film restarts; that is to say, the first twelve minutes play again, with essentially no changes. This repeated structure allots one the time to unpack the film’s cerebral density. Fragmented musical cues, of French pianist Alfred Cortot and Wagner’s Götterdämmerung opera, also offer immediate pleasures.

The mid-length Chants and Dances for Hand is the one I expect to ponder the longest, in part because of its slippery symmetrical structure, but most of all due to its personal nature. Filmed in Haiti over the course of several years, the film bears superficial similarity to Maya Deren’s ethnographic documentary Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1954), as both feature Haitian vodou rituals at their center. Indeed, Chants demonstrates the trust Gottheim earned from this community; he is seen participating in religious customs, and his camera betrays close access to these rituals — fair warning that a goat, named Kabrit, is sacrificed on-screen. On this same note, Gottheim documents a tumultuous political uprising in Port-au-Prince, culminating in disturbing footage of a charred corpse and a dead boy. The actuality of death pervading this film is not simply the product of sensationalized gawking, but of familial concern. The “Hand” in the film’s title refers to Gottheim’s son, Hand, whose mother, Mitsou, is the Haitian woman seen playing the violin at the film’s beginning and end. Gottheim intersperses extremely candid, playful footage of Hand throughout this work. It is furthermore notable that the sound drops out completely, for about two minutes, as we see women and men, some as young as Hand, stand before these public corpses in fragile awe.