projection 40

Devoted Songs: The Films of Nathaniel Dorsky.
Curated by Lumière Magazine and Esperanza Collado
Introduced by Daniel Fitzpatrick.

6.30pm / Tuesday 22 April 2014
Irish Film Institute - 6 Eustace Street, Temple Bar, Dublin

Book tickets. 

When I woke up from the dream I only conserved one image of it, but it represented the entire dream. My memory, wisely, didn't want to do or say more. Perhaps that remembered image didn't even coincide with the ones I had dreamt. This is how Nathaniel Dorsky’s films work, and he seems happy to continue with this purpose of oblivion. Maybe for this reason, all that follows only belongs to the realm of so-called poetic justice.*

The cinema of Nathaniel Dorsky possesses a beauty that is not sustained in either a narrative form or a political motivation. It’s born from a desire to establish relations from one shot to the next, and to knowing what visual or emotional association we can create between two images that apparently don't have anything to do with each other. The filmmaker, almost like a street poet, has gone over the streets of San Francisco for more than forty years with the motivation of finding in quotidian spaces images capable of explaining his complex relationship with the world. Dorsky tells us that during some stages of his life, his difficulty to express himself, to communicate with the rest of the world, urged him to make films, the only medium with which he could manifest what he really felt, or in which he could get lost freely, isolating himself with his camera and finding shelter under a world that only he knew.
The alchemist had shown us that the camera is capable of arranging forms and matter in states that the eye wouldn't be able to manage. Out of focus shots and superimpositions, which Dorsky appreciated highly in Brakhage’s cinema, keep the surface of objects, landscapes and people partially at a distance, while jump cuts prevent us from turning to the temptation of establishing the type of associations our brain usually imposes (glances, words, behavioural communication), privileging instead the electrical charge detached from the shots themselves: it’s more about feeling than thinking, hence the difficulty of remembering these films in detail, and the exhaustion they produce. In that condition, when these films are perceived next to each other, or rather, separated from each other, we reach a more elemental and intimate level of so-called open montage, where voltaic arcs liberate all their energy until they burst in a final coda.

The Visitation, 2002, Nathaniel Dorsky

In this sense, in The Visitation (2002), the first of the three “devotional songs” conceived by Dorsky as the gradual revelation of a fact not specifically circumscribed by a site, but by a psyche, the articulation is not established so much within the realm of images, as it is in “the response of the heart to the poignancy of the cuts”[1]. At the start, filmmaker Jerome Hiler, who is seen from the back filming in the opposite direction, holds a sheet that he will use to create his medieval stained glass. Next, we see his face through the glass, flecked by the light that leaks through and ready to examine its qualities. These two shots not only remind us that –as P. Adams Sitney has written- “the film camera is a chamber with a glass screen built to preserve luminous stains in motion that go through it”, they also are evidence of a tactical opening: the mirror as a threshold, as a spectral passage implicit in another world, a fantastic one undoubtedly: a reverse angle that separates the external space from an interior, mental one. When Hiler looks at this suggested mirror, he gets a double image of himself, that of the very ghost induced by the cinema: curved, broken, or parallel lines of mystery, the superimposition of all its sides, the screen itself.

The vague haze over a blue lake, the bottom of its waters reflected on the ceiling of a room, the gentle motion of the grass on a hilltop, the quietness of the night and the black depths of a wetland, vibrations or light blowing on some curtains, the nets or grilles in shadows (tennis rackets, chains, mosquito nets, bicycle wheels), the different natural fabrics (petals and leaves, resinous logs), superimposed crystals – an aquarium in which a fish dives in the middle of the street- or a figurative eclipse –half of the moon covered by clouds- do not just take us to that particular mental state, or in some cases to the rhythms and cadence of nature and the different seasons, but, in a more complex way, depending on the directions of the shadows projected by each object, to the different hours of the day, all of them condensed in one single screen that has “always identified itself with a mirror only capable of reflecting the images it has kept.”[2]

"In film, there are two ways of including human beings. One is depicting human beings. Another is to create a film form which, in itself, has all the qualities of being human: tenderness, observation, fear, relaxation, the sense of stepping into the world and pulling back, expansion, contraction, changing, softening, tenderness of heart. The first is a form of theatre and the latter is a form of poetry." - Nathaniel Dorsky

Winter, 2008, Nathaniel Dorsky
Click here to listen to Dorsky's presentation of Winter at (S8) Mostra de Cinema Periferico, A Coruña, Spain, June 2011
Between 1976 and 1983, Nathaniel Dorsky made two of his fundamental and most radical films from a formal viewpoint, Alaya (1976-1987) and Pneuma (1983). Both films, presented as a couple, explore an interest in small things taken to its ultimate consequences and looked at from different positions, the “inframince”, and the lightness of the event. In order to make Alaya, Dorsky went to the great desert of Death Valley, as John Ford did before in his magnificent 3 Godfathers (1948). Having said that, we wont find here the three Wise Men, nor Jesus, Mary, and the child. Dorsky detaches himself from figurative-narrative and symbolic resources, and a desert seems ideal for such a purpose, a place where life is reduced to the land itself. That is where Dorsky directs the camera, turning the entire film into a “heap of sand”, where the event is reduced to minor phenomena, light grains propelled by the wind in unpredictable directions where the refraction of light will give us slight sparkles like stars in the firmament.
Alaya, 1987, Nathaniel Dorsky

Delving into Alaya, the film is made of around 76 shots in which Dorsky registers, shot by shot, sand grains in different “stages”: either in motion, or still, by means of different grades of illumination, scale and relief (field of depth plays an important role). Each of these “shots-stages” is meticulously composed. We even know –from the words of Dorsky himself- that some of the shots where “reconstructed” in the basement of his home, as a “mock-up”, with sand, an Electrolux vacuum and some spotlights, to illuminate something that, on the other hand, accentuates the idea of scale, distance, and frame, very present formally in the film, to the point of often creating difficulties in distinguishing between the macroscopic and the microscopic due to perspectival ambiguity and ambivalence, if we are before small sand grooves or large dunes; or before a slight shift of the sand or the vibration of the filmic grain itself: “There are plenty of moments in Alaya where the shot is formed almost 60% by grain and 40% by sand”.[3]

In spite of any attempt to analyse or find a syntax for Dorsky’s films, they are characterised by their resistance to interpretations and the way they dissolve in memory by means of a sort of erasure from which it would be impossible, after having watched them, to make a thorough or precise reconstruction. In this sense, we should contemplate his cinema as an experience-based, phenomenal event.

*This text is made of a selection of excerpts taken from Revista Lumière 05 (June 2012) and 06 (July 2013), Barcelona. Written by Miguel Blanco Hortas, Francisco Algarín Navarro, and Félix García de Villegas. Edited and translated by Esperanza Collado. Special thanks to Maximilian Le Cain. 

The films

Dorsky insists that his films are shown silently (another trait he shares with Brakhage) screened from 16mm prints with no accompanying soundtrack and typically projected at what he refers to as the ‘sacred speed’ of 18 frames per second, as oppose to the standard rate of 24 frames per second. The 18 fps standard was established during the silent period, a slower pace which produces a more visible flicker and more readily reveals the gaps between frames. (Daniel Fitzpatrick)

2008  |  21.5 minutes  |  silent speed  |  18 fps  |  16 mm  |  color  |  silent
1987  |  28 minutes  |  silent speed  |  18 fps  |  16 mm  |  color  |  silent

The Visitation
2002  |  18 minutes  |  silent speed  |  18 fps  |  16 mm  |  color  |  silent

[1] Dorsky, N. Description of The Visitation.
[2] “When Dorsky titled his film The Visitation, he had in mind medieval books elucidated with “hours of the Virgin Mary”, in which the visit of pregnant Mary to her cousin Isabel, herself also pregnant by John the Baptist- illustrate praises, the ritual service by the dawn. The emergence of light and its itinerary over the surface of the world is the true subject of the film.” Sitney, P. A. 2007. Tone Poems. Artforum, Vol. 46, n 3, November.
[3] MacDonald, S. A Critical Cinema 5. Interviews with Independent Filmmakers.