Peter Hutton (1944-2016)
New York Portrait, Chapter Two (1981)
Peter Hutton’s ‘Boston Fire’ depicts the abstracted burning of a unidentified building and a group of fire-fighter’s futile attempts to drown out the blaze. Constructed as a series of stationary shots aimed at different parts of the fire, it begins by focussing on the endless plumes of smoke that the fire emits, then looking at the ruins of the building and the nameless and faceless men attempting to put out the fire. Each shot is separated by a short length of black footage, which works to construct the images into a progression of events, rather than letting a straight forward montage attempt to create a narrative out of the events, locations and people present.
It begins with the an image of billowing smoke emerging from somewhere just below the frame of the camera, initiating a play between darkness and light and the continual transformation of the image between presence and absence. Because we don’t initially know the origin of the smoke clouds, we focus on the after-effects of this unidentified catastrophic event rather than the event itself, bringing the relationship between cause and effect and our human connection and implication in events to the foreground. The clouds of smoke are repeated in several shots, some filmed in slow-motion to highlight the unnatural and unrelenting persistence of the emerging smoke, and to hint at the ability of the film camera to capture and project this phenomenon in a situation outside of its natural origin. This initial series of repetitive images allows us to contemplate on its visual and aesthetic qualities without having to be present at its temporal location.
A few shots later we are shown the burning wreckage of a building, identifying the cause of the smoke as the destruction of a human construction. We do not know the purpose of this building; it may be a school, hospital, a home or simply an old barn or storage facility. This uncertainty about the buildings previous existence brings the purpose of all human constructions into question; it does not matter what this building was, all we know and see is the aftermath of its inevitable destruction. Man’s ability to create is sidelined for the portrayal of its eventual destruction, which appears to question the temporality of our industrial creations and their ultimate impermanence.
Shortly after we see the first signs of human involvement in this situation. Two figures walk across the path of the camera’s view, their identity not made explicit but alluding to the existence of man’s activity at this space. We see fire hoses spraying water from off screen onto the fire in front of us, but this does little to stop the blaze, merely pushing and manipulating the continuous stream of dark smoke into the sky above them. Man’s involvement in this situation is abstracted to anonymous figures who are invested in stopping the fire but are merely seen as powerless manipulators in the spatial and temporal interplay between darkness and light. Both man and his architectural constructions are abstracted to the point of invisibility, we know that they exist, but specific points of reference have been removed to allude to the futile and impermanent nature of our existence.
Because each shot is separated from the previous one by a short gap or darkness, it does not create a specific narrative out of the depicted events but alludes to a progression of events that transcends history to place what we see not at a specific point in time and space but as a universal comment on the connection between mans place and involvement in the world around him. More classical depictions of real life events and the use of documentary footage often works to place the developments in human life in a series or chain of events; one event causing another which leads to another, which is how traditional history has taught us to understand the progression of human life through the ages. Hutton’s film, however, uses cinema’s ability to manipulate events to show us how we have been manipulated into seeing things as chronologically specific to certain temporal and spatial locations. While the title of the film identifies the location of the fire as Boston, it works to show the universal qualities that a series of images and events can have by making us aware of the nature of traditional narrative and editing techniques that have become so dominant in the way we understand our contemporary lives.