Sidney Peterson's "The Potted Psalm" (1947)

To interpret The Potted Psalm is beyond my capacity. I'll just try to react to it.

In Visionary Film, P. Adams Sitney uses the title of this specific film as the title of a whole chapter. And there is a quote by Sidney Peterson over there:
"The connections may or may not be rational. In an intentionally realistic work the question of rationality is not a consideration. What is being stated has its roots in myth and strives through the chaos of the commonplace data toward the kind of inconstant allegory which is the only substitute for myth in a world too lacking in such symbolic formulations. And the statement itself is at least as important as what is being stated."

Vertical pans, rhythmic movements, fetishes, but more importantly, freedom, the liberty to see what happens... A film that grows organically, without any rational connections, always human... Using a phrase from Peterson's Mr. Frenhofer and the Minotaur: "Something that is perfectly natural, but beyond anatomy".

I don't have the book at hand but in Film at wit's end: eight avant-garde filmmakers, Stan Brakhage has detailed comments about the film, and Peterson's art in general.

As Fred Camper writes: "The truly silent cinema of avant-gardists requires no accompaniment—silence deepens the viewer's imaginative involvement."

And one of my favorite quotes on art, by Sidney Peterson:
"These images are meant to play not on our rational senses, but on the infinite universe of ambiguity within us."

In my opinion, the title itself describes Peterson's definition of film as art: Great films are sacred songs that have, unlike ancient songs, a definite form, but they are also like plants, capable of growing in time. According to Merriam-Webster: "Potted" also means "drunk" in slang. I don't if the word was used in this sense at the time, but if it was, then "Potted Psalm" might also mean a sacred but possibly irrational, debauched song. I think all of these interpretations, and others I can't think of, can be true at the same time.


RossWilbanks said…
'Let me give you a sense of his conversation. Most of Sidney's writing is, I think, too dense to reflect his conversation. But there is another passage from 'The Fly in the Pigment' that comes close:

Lice and fleas have won more battles than all the generals in history. The generals are well aware of this fact. They know they can't fight a big modern war without an adequate insecticide. In 1914 they had pyrethrum. With tremendous effort they managed to hold the western front but in the east lice were completely successful. It is estimated that from 1917 to 1921 there were more than 15 million cases of louse-bourne typhus in the territories controlled by the Soviet Republic.'
'He was interested in facts. Not infinity.'

Brakhage-Film at Wit's End Eight Avant-Garde Filmmakers
Yoel Meranda said…
thank you for these quotes. i like his train of thought... if you can call it "a train of thought"...

a sense of his conversation? have you met sidney peterson?
RossWilbanks said…
That's from Film at Wit's End. You speared a few google-quotes so I was filling in some more mystery and illumination on him. Don't you feel like you're meeting someone when you watch Peterson's films? A kind of person who skips introductions and starts you on the last train of thought he was in? Such wonderful illustrations on how to commit a kind of lark that seems lost now; Brakhage fronts that on his Peterson chapter. (one of my favorite pieces he's done) I just saw The Potted Psalm for the first time last night then ran across your write-up. So many lessons to be learned from him. I treasure the films the more and more I see them.
Yoel Meranda said…
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Yoel Meranda said…
thanks for that...

i agree that he just invites us to participate in his surreal train of thought. i'm sure this has to do with how the films were made themselves but i do feel some sense of shared subconscious, a secret mind-communion or something when i see his films. peterson is one of my ten favorite film-makers.

agree that his films are abrupt in lots of ways, but more importantly in my opinion, they grow and expand as they progress. the films have their own way of seeing the world, and more we learn this new language, more powerful they get.

peterson's films expand in every way... if you haven't seen it, the "minotaur" one is a must-see. it throws me off-balance every time i see it.
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Yoel Meranda said…
hello sabrina, thank you very much for writing that!
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Anonymous said…
I think 'experimental' is the key word in this work. I'm no film historian, but it seems as though Peterson is trying to find new ways to express himself, like any kid does with a new toy, just what kind of 'fun' can be achieved.

Evoking phantom tactile reactions seems to be a common theme in 'Psalm', that, and evoking distress or horror at images that were alien to what had been seen in film up to that point. Primitive art (tiki statues, etc.) were a cultural fad of the Beatniks (Picasso's fascination with tribal masks may have injected this into popular culture) and the taboo of pseudo-sexual imagery (the doll face being rhythmically pumped into a flexible mirrored surface, the woman eating the leaf(??)) was something that just was not done in film.

Influenced by Dadaism, which was an art movement 30 years earlier which reveled in the absurd, overturning convention (literally, Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal upside down and called it 'fountain', presenting it as art), Peterson is exploring that same absurdity.

Like Dadaism, the avant garde took the familiar (and the taboo) and turned it upside down
Great article and I think you have raised your points well. I have really enjoyed reading so I thank you for posting.

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