The Clearing of Gavagai

Rob Tregenza 1/19/17


For forty years, two thinkers projected their thoughts into my cinematic practice. Martin Heidegger and Jean-Luc Godard.

I first turned towards Heidegger in 1977, when I was working on a PhD at UCLA. While there, the dominant methods of film criticism were materialist, marxist, structuralist, and semiotic.

I had a class with Raymond Durgnat (Films and Feelings, 1972), who expressed concerns that these methods, although useful in some applications, could obscure or cover-over that which they could not account for, by the structure of the method used to interpret the event. And those things were exactly what he found too often, to be the most interesting and enjoyable parts of the critical process.

I also had a class with Brian Henderson (“Towards a Non-Bourgeois Camera Style,” 1975). This was my first critical engagement with Jean-Luc Godard. Henderson showed us the epic long take in Weekend.

In 1978, I finished the course work, sat for the comprehensive, did the oral exams, and submitted and defended a proposed PhD thesis on “The Evolution of Hollywood Editing Techniques.”

Then I hit a wall. On the journey, I had become more interested in the long take of the mise-en-scène system than in classical studio editing practice in Hollywood. At that time, in my professional production experience, there was a parallel movement. I had been working as a film editor, but around then, I became a camera operator shooting mostly documentary films.

I moved from the cut to the shot as the focus of both thinking and production.

This brings up issues of duration and time, understanding and interpretation. That took me directly to Heidegger’s Being and Time, and then to his later works after the “turn.”

I bought from a used book store in L.A. a copy of Godard on Godard, with translation and Commentary by Tom Milne (1972). I read number 14 on page 39 “Montage My Fine Care.” I would keep coming back to this book again and again during the years.

In 1978, I changed and defended a new dissertation topic which the committee approved.

In 1982, I finished my PhD dissertation and it was accepted: “Understanding and Film: Martin Heidegger and the Film-Event” (1982, UCLA).


Godard’s concept of the “definitive by chance” informed the working method of my first feature Talking to Strangers (1987).

The Arc (1991) was a working-out of the relationship of Russian montage, classical linkage editing and the long take as human consciousness and understanding.

Inside/Out (1997) was all about time and cinema, with Jean-Luc watching.

Gavagai (2017) is about poetry and Heidegger/Hölderlin, Godard/Tarjei Vesaas as poets reaching into “the abyss.”

The filmmakers and interpreters, as artists and thinkers, were all along for the ride.


The ineffability of poetry announces that authentic Being can be attuned and set free in the clearing that is the Cinematic-event.

An ancient transcendence, not simply the frame of modern secularity, can reveal itself in the light and darkness of that time.

In the feature film Gavagai, the method of creation is to employ the language of a poet, Tarjei Vesaas, and the practice of cinema to uncover how Being and death can call for a different, more meditative event. Gavagai has its origin in thoughts on Being.

We follow a forest path set forth by Martin Heidegger, not on a country lane in the Black Forest of Germany, but in Telemark, Norway.

Man seeks in vain to reduce the world to his plans, if he is not attuned to the message of the country lane.

-Martin Heidegger, Der Feldweg (1949)

Gavagai as a type of poetry calls for a unity of human existence and experience to challenge the dichotomies and dualisms typical of Western thinking and cinematic practice.

For Heidegger these dualisms are not originally in opposition but are complementary in their original unity. Subject/object, realism/idealism, perception/understanding, or mise-en-scène/montage.

The things we encounter are no longer simply equipment ready at hand but are constituted by what Heidegger calls “The Fourfold:” earth and sky and mortals and gods.

The being-in-the-world of human existence always includes the possibility that it can grasp or let slip away its unique individuality as a being, and their freedoms put at risk by “being-in” or “being-with the world.”

We are thrown into an environment and Heidegger says we are fated to dwell there. Dwelling requires care, concern and conscience for the beings and things we are Being-with.

Cast into the clearing of Dasein (Being-in-the-World) we find we have a mood or a state of mind, which is attuned to anxiety because of a sense of vulnerability. We sense that we are falling. This term does not for Heidegger have a negative theological intent. As we fall, we move away or towards our possibilities for being free.

The symptoms of falling are idle talk, curiosity, ambiguity, tranquilizing and alienation that tend to lead the being away from itself.

Dasein and the operation of care and concern in it are not types of substance; they are part of being. They are not things. They both function in a temporal structure called time.

For Heidegger, this time is not scientific clock time, an objectified and reified phenomenon. It is not past, present and future as conventionally known. There are dimensions of time which are all internally related. There is not a possible knife-edge between moments but an “appreciable span of duration.”

In Gavagai, we use this sense of time to organize the narrative elements.

The essence of technology for Heidegger is “gestell” or enframing (that is the name of this motion picture production company). The threat from gestell is not the machine or the technology itself, but a type of reframing that can deny beings an entrance into a more original revealing, and therefore no longer be able to experience anymore primal truth.

But where dangers is, grows the saving power also.

-Friedrich Hölderlin

In The Origin of the Work of Art (1950), Heidegger discusses how a thing can open itself in truth. This temple is very much like Gavagai.

This temple gathers around itself not just a fourfold but a manifest field of meaning in which there is a unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline aquire the shape of destiny for human beings.

-Basic Works, p. 168



As soon as I read Vesaas, I was struck with the power and vision of the works and they reminded me of Holderlin and that quote from “Bread and Wine,” and Heidegger’s application of it in his essay “What Are Poets For,” that the function of the poet is to reach into the abyss in a destitute time.

I have always felt that was one of the blessings of Godard in Cinema he has created cinematic poetry time and time again while reaching again and again.

So, the poetry and the poet first attracted me to the project with Godard in the back of my mind.

We did not feel like doing a “documentary,” so Kirk Kjeldsen (screenwriter and producer) and I started weaving 15 poems into a narrative set in Telemark.

We considered narrative genre and both wanted to do a “road” movie with poetic text and build the conflict in the encounters between the environment, the poetry, and the beings. We also wanted this quest to be almost impossible.

This brought up the problem of translation itself and cultural issues. My sister, who is a philosopher, had told me Quine’s “Gavagai” story back in the 80’s and I had never forgotten it. That became the title, replacing Beyond the Moment. 


As the director of photography, I felt to shoot 35mm color film story with anamorphic scope lenses with 4 perf frames would be the best image. I never considered digital. I do not like the look of the digital image.

As the director, I wanted to return to extended takes with a very fluid camera, more like Talking to Strangers. There are only 21 scenes and 23 shots in this 90 minute film.


As the editor, I wanted nothing but straight cuts between the shots. I also wanted as much montage as I could get between shots.


Always designed as direct audio for the dialogue and effects 5.1 surround. Sound sculpture to build the off-screen space.


Further Reading
Being and Time by Martin Heidegger 1927
Heidegger and Christianity by John Macquarrie 1994
Understanding and Film: Martin Heidegger and the Film-Event, 1982 PhD Dissertation, UCLA By Rob Tregenza
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