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At Sea (Peter Hutton, 2007)


Were it not for creator Peter Hutton’s decision to film without sound, his 2007 experimental documentary At Sea might be considered a relatively straightforward work. Divided into three sections, this unique film shows the construction, the use, and the dismantling of two massive freight ships. Over the course of the film's one-hour run time, we see a structural cycle of birth, life, and death, although the ships featured in the three sections of the movie are not the same (for obvious logistical reasons). With no narration, and no sound at all, Hutton’s film forces attention onto the images that he’s captured, inevitably helping viewers to appreciate the familiar sights that he has been captured a new manner. As people familiar with these gigantic vessels, we are used to processing images of machines at the same time that we hear the cacophonous noises of industry. To have that din stripped away, and to abstract the work being done through compositional choice, is to reconfigure the rhythms and forms of industry into something new. We might have seen the sights that Hutton chooses to film before, but we have not seen them as they are presented here. Men riding in a freight elevator become participants in a geometrical sculpture. A massive ship deck that is hoisted by an equally massive crane above an Asian seaside port town becomes a marvelous defiance of the laws of gravity. When combined with Hutton’s camerawork, which always remains at an extreme distance, the silence works to emphasize the scale of what we see. Workers scurry like ants around the frame, dwarfed by the behemoths that they have made. The slow pace of Hutton's edits gives the film's unfolding a lumbering quality that befits its gargantuan subjects.


Many of Hutton’s images are breathtakingly composed, especially in the mid-section of At Sea, where nature itself becomes the film’s auteur, and we are reminded of the visual marvels of rain, sleet, clouds, and the ocean itself. The Toledo Spirit and the Prasad, as the imposing ships at the center of the film are named, serve at once as landscapes, objects, spectacles, and characters. The narrative arc here, which takes us across the ship’s life span, is so slim as to be better described as a thematic one. The decision to emphasize image through the use of silence only increases the power of what we see. Unlike most silent films, the silence here becomes a most striking aesthetic aspect, and transforms the work's meaning. At Sea is a true epic that only stumbles in its final act, as Hutton shifts his focus from the freighters. As the image turns black and white, the director repositions the subject of the film to the scrap-hunting humans who salvage metal from the wasted hull of the Prasad on an anonymous beach. Hutton allows people get closer to the camera, and even directly look into its gaze, breaking the impressive, totemic spell created by the ships. The recognizably human presence diminishes the power of what has come before, somewhat, even as it turns the creators of these impressive beasts into the lowly scavengers of their corpses.




Jeremy Heilman