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A Leaf's-Weight Love Letter
Scientist-Emeritus Scow Makes NIH Docupoem

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

Greater love hath no man for his place of employment than he will take videocamera in hand and stroll the NIH campus on a brilliant fall Sunday afternoon, film locations beloved to him, digitally massage the movie 7 years later, then title the 14-minute docupoem, "An October Sunday at NIH." This is what NIDDK scientist emeritus Dr. Robert O. Scow of the Laboratory of Cellular and Developmental Biology has accomplished in his spare time.


His film's subtitle gets more specific. The movie was made on Oct. 24, 1993, and includes views along west Center Drive, the Clinical Center (then celebrating its 40th year), the Cloister, and a place Scow calls The North Woods, that grove of tall tulip poplars along Cedar Lane on the campus' northwest border. There is a soundtrack — meditative classical music — but no narration, and human beings figure only briefly in a segment toward the end where teenagers and a young adult forage innocently for outstanding specimens in a leaf pile.

The movie is so languid a portrait of an indian summer Sunday that by the time humans show up, one gets the Ingmar Bergman-esque sense that one of them is about to deliver, apropos of nothing in particular, a shattering emotional declaration. But of course that doesn't happen. This is a love letter of a film, a leaf's weight of affection for a place, an idyll instantly identifiable by anyone who has spent the four seasons here. It has all the consequence of a lunch-hour stroll remembered with affection, the sweet scent of pine duff on an unswept sidewalk.

NIDDK's Dr. Robert Scow

As in a European art film, or in any "silent" film for that matter, there are moments that struggle for translation: why does the camera, which in its opening minutes has been so literal, documenting street signs, cars passing, and the distorted reflectivity of Bldg. 10's outpatient cube, suddenly pan skyward and follow a jet contrail through the air? Probably because it caught the filmmaker's unfettered attention; another thing to glance at while taking a peaceful stroll.

You can ask what the film is supposed to accomplish. To certain dispositions, it must assuredly answer the question, "What is NIH really like?" To watch it is to feel that you happened upon one of those old, fold-out postcards — "Having a wonderful Sunday, wish you were here" — the craftwork of a gentle mind.

The movie also functions as historical document. Yes, citizens of the future, there were warm fall Sundays when nothing more significant happened than the arrival of the Geppetto's pizza delivery car at the old hospital entrance, near a sunny swirl of gnats, when every pane of glass in the ACRF and along the front of Bldg. 10's first floor hosted a silent riot of psychedelic fall color.

A still photo from Scow's autumn video captures the "jewels" worn by Bldg. 10 as sunlight is reflected off of the ACRF, part of the hospital.

Old Apartment Bldg. 20 gets brief attention, as does the Louise Nevelson sculpture "Sky Horizon." Seen from the perspective of the present, the film anticipates the loss of Bldg. 10's front entry. In its most unusual sequence, the film captures a phenomenon Scow says happens only at certain times of the year, and then only for a few minutes: sunlight hitting the ACRF windows is reflected back onto the brick face of old Bldg. 10 in bright diamond patterns, several stories high. Scow calls the reflections "jewels," and laments, "they are gone forever. Their disappearance reflects the needed modernization of the NIH clinical facilities."

The jewels may be gone, but the sensibility that captured them is not. Nor is an employee's capacity to savor the campus' quiet majesty, which is what the film, after all, is celebrating.

A Conversation with the Filmmaker

Dr. Robert O. Scow comes by his affection for NIH honestly; he has been here since 1948, and declares, "I've loved it here, as you can see." A founding member of the institute that became NIDDK, he now enjoys emeritus status and visits his office on the ground floor of Bldg. 8 two days a week. "I'm writing a paper now," he said on a morning in mid-August "and an ex-postdoc from Japan is coming in September to spend 2 weeks with me."

NIDDK scientist-emeritus Dr. Robert Scow poses in his Bldg. 8 office near a stained glass window he created to illustrate the metabolism of fat in a blood vessel wall.

How fatty acids behave and move in tissues and cells has been his scientific interest for the past quarter century. He once recorded the whimsical movements of fatty acids in aqueous media in a 13-minute film that he set to country music, "Watching Fatty Acids." The impulse to make art from science seems typical of Scow, a figure too bemused by what lies revealed by electron microscopy to report the facts drily.

Filming things has consumed his career of late; he has become something of a documentarian. The October afternoon movie turns out to have been made at the behest of a Korean postdoc who had been to the NIH campus and asked to be given a look at the autumn leaves. "It was a nice day," recalls Scow, "so I thought I'd go out and see what I could find. I remembered the 'jewels' on the ACRF building, and fortunately they were there that day."

He has also videotaped symposia, including a 2-day tribute to his colleague, NIDDK chemist Dr. John Daly. Titled "John Daly: Roots of Chemistry at NIH," the two-tape production includes the guests' lectures plus commentary and the reception. "I just sat in the front row with my videocamera on a tripod," said Scow of that labor of love.

In recent years, he has filmed performances at summer Folklife Festivals on the Mall in downtown Washington. "Banda Santa Clara" documents a 43-minute performance by Filipino musicians playing bamboo instruments at the 1998 Festival of American Folklife, and two tapes Scow made last July capture rehearsals and performances by Harlem's Apollo Theater artists. He has also just finished editing his "Zermatt Matterhorn Trilogy," which documents a trip he took with the NIH Ski Club to Switzerland last March. Viewers "have cried," he reports, after watching the last segment, set to Mozart's woodwind concertos.

"I'm experimenting all the time," Scow says unironically of his new pastime.

He shared copies of the NIH autumn film with what amounted to a focus group: "I burdened my relatives and friends and some retirees with copies. I don't know how many people look at them."

Some of his more exotic cinematic adventures include 45 straight days of filming house wrens in his backyard, and 20 consecutive months of documenting the growth of the Sumatran tiger cubs at the National Zoo. Once, a young pileated woodpecker strayed into his backyard for an impromptu 20-minute rap session, and Scow was ready with the camera. "I've got it set up in the kitchen," waiting for possums and other fauna to show up.

Scow has burned through three Sony Hi-8 camcorders so far, and now uses a digital 8 mm videocamera. "I just boosted my computer hard drive to 100 gigabytes to be able to accommodate all this," he says. "I'm getting better and better at editing. I think I have an eye for some things."

To inquire about the availability of his films, contact Scow at 496-5860.

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