Posted on 06/12/11
Filmic light: the serene beauty of earthly experience
Georgia Korossi talks to Nathaniel Dorsky during the Experimenta Weekend at the 55th BFI London Film Festival
The work of San Francisco experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky is a fascinating example into what film can do cinematographically. His films are narrations of the mind outside the structural arena of the descriptive organisation of themes or action cinema. For Dorsky there’s no end to the possibility of discovering silent film language and he cherishes ideas of a story told through montage and light, which developed from reading poetry.
Born in New York City, Dorsky studied at the Antioch College and the New York University and has exhibited his films since the start of the 1960s. In his book Devotional Cinema (2003), the result of his lecture at the Princeton University as visiting delegate in 2001, Dorsky reflects upon the language and the 'elemental glory' of film as devotional practice and references key filmmakers such as Carl Theodor Dreyer, Yasujiro Ozu, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Roberto Rossellini.
A recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, Dorsky has so far made 22 films that have been screened in international museums and film festivals including the Museum of Modern Art (New York), Image Forum (Tokyo), Wavelengths program of the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival's Views from the Avant-Garde section. In 2010 he took part in the 54th BFI London Film Festival with his films Compline (2009), Aubade (2010) and Hours for Jerome (1966-70/1982). This year he returned to the London Film Festival’s Experimenta strand with his latest films, which explore the abstract forms of light and consciousness and once again played to full houses.
We've recently seen your work in the 55th BFI London Film Festival, The Return (2011) and a sister film to Aubade, Pastourelle (2010). First of all can you talk about how and when you got into filmmaking?
I always loved movies and when I was 10 years old I borrowed my first 8mm camera and begun to make movies with my friends. That was in 1953.
In the 1960s you organised had many film appreciation evenings with Jerome Hiler. Were these a platform for discussing avant-garde film and a basis for getting your work known?
Not at all. We were going to the movies both narrative features and avant-garde showcases during the 1960s in New York and we took film very seriously. We shared our aspirations and talked about issues and ideas we had on how cinema could work as an artwork and where the exploration of filmmaking can go. We were extremely interested in intrinsic film language in relation to human consciousness.
Is avant-garde cinema more accessible now?
Yes, it has now shifted to a more official situation. One used to have to go to dangerous neighborhoods after midnight for a screening. This area of cinematic expression has become a lot more accessible now, but avant-garde cinema has become almost a genre and people make things within this genre.
Can you talk about having Gregory Markopoulos as a model for filmmaking?
My dear friend Jerome Hiler was the assistant to Gregory Markopoulos for a year or so before I met either Jerome or Gregory. Jerome did the costumes and scouted locations for Gregory and they attended the screening of my first avant-garde film, Ingreen, in the summer of 1964. That’s how I got to know both of them. Before that point I was very affected by seeing Gregory’s films, especially his early silent versions before he edited sound. It was a very strong experience like seeing Stan Brakhage’s work and a few other people. They were very strong influences.
Some of your films are to be projected at 18fps. As it’s becoming more and more difficult to choose the ideal speed for projecting silent cinema, can you talk about speed specification when exhibiting your work and the passage from analogue to digital? Where are your films shown?
Very fortunately the only new 16mm projectors that are being made in the world are made in Germany. They are the 35/16mm projectors that can convert to one or the other format and fortunately they go at silent speed. The theatres, which have bought new projectors, have this capability so in a strange way it’s growing a little bit. I like the silent speed because it makes the film a bit more gentle or vulnerable – almost more transparent in a way. I'm 68 now and I think for the rest of my lifetime or I assume for at least another 5 or 10 years you’ll be able to make 16mm films. Young people like my films very much, people in their 20s, just like young people got fascinated with vinyl or some rock groups might actually come out with an album on vinyl. There could be some esoteric interest in it. I guess eventually it will be transferred to an electronic medium, perhaps after my lifetime, and maybe people can enjoy them in their own homes the way they might enjoy a piece of music.
Who is your favorite Hollywood auteur?
I cannot single out one person; it would not be fair because there are so many people who are great in so many different ways. I enjoy Hitchcock very much, he is extremely important because his film structure and narrative principles are based on montage, which is exhilarating. I enjoy his films from the standpoint of how the progression of images is the story. Where most people are happy to photograph a story, his is structured so the story itself has to do with the use of montage. John Ford is very wonderful, his sense of light is very important to me. But then there are other directors who have such great human qualities, like Leo McCarey etc.
Reflection and light are central in your films. How much of it is natural?
The light in my films is all natural. They are very organic, no artificial ingredients. Everything is what it is. Reflection is one central part of it because my films are not dramas; they don’t use the film as a stage with the bottom of the screen as gravity. Most filmmakers use the film as a stage. In my films the screen is a floating world and they are more in the realm of poetry rather than in the realm of prose. As poetry, my images are states of mind rather than actual places. I’m not trying to describe a place, I’m trying to express a state of mind. The montage has to do with the progression of these states, which are very layered and include your whole personal history or emotional life. The whole way you see the world and the world outside of you, your state of mind has many layers, like a reflecting pool. You might see the clouds floating in the water, you might see the dust on the surface of the water, the algae and the plants on the bottom of the pool, or you might see some fish swimming through the water. So there might be four or five layers of perception. I find that kind of image is closer to expressing the nature of the mind, which has many different layers both emotional and visual.
Do you consider your work as an example of landscape documentary?
They are documentaries of what it feels like to be. It’s very intimate, it is more like a documentary of what it’s like to get into bed at night and turn out the lights and just lie there and go over your day and feel what it’s like to be. It’s a documentary of one's own being.
What are the two avant-garde films one must see this year?
One is the very beautiful film by my dear friend Jerome Hiler, Words of Mercury, which was shown at this year’s New York Film Festival. I also saw another very simple film which I really liked in Toronto by the English filmmaker Sophie Michael called 99 Clerkenwell Road.
Who is your favorite critic of independent film and do you think a film critic can write as objectively on avant-garde film as the art critic?
Of course there’s no right answer to it and it will vary on circumstances. For instance my own work was first recognized by people not within the avant-garde and they paid more attention to it and then the avant-garde began to pay attention to it. Sometimes people not within a certain atmosphere of ideas can see more clearly than people from the same atmosphere of ideas. There are very few people who have a pan-aestheticism. I can go to a concert, a painting show, I can go to the ballet and I can tell you how good it was and why. A lot of people seem to have perfected a certain media and are insensitive to other media. Many things now called 'moving image art' that are in today's museums are things that were accomplished in the world of filmmaking over a hundred years ago. The Tate Modern had a big show called “Duration,” but the very first films that were made by the Lumiere brothers with train commuters or workers leaving the factory were about duration. Although some people think this is some kind of amazing movement, it is actually the very basis of cinema and an idea, which is already over a hundred years old. On the other hand the art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, Kenneth Baker, has done some of the best writing ever about my work. He never reviews film, but he perceives the sublime nature of my work; whereas someone who might be a film critic addicted to narrative form or avant-garde form may not have anything perceptive to say about it. They’re stuck in their reality. So it depends how open and brilliant someone is; otherwise people are stuck in a point of view and they can’t see beyond it. P Adams Sitney has also written beautifully about my work in Art Forum.
How do you feel about your films screening in the same program with Ben Rivers’ Sack Barrow (2011) at this year’s London Film Festival?
I saw Ben Rivers’ films in Toronto, which is very fortunate. His work is so different than my work so the show could be interesting. Sometimes if you line up people who are too parallel, then it’s not a good combination. It’s not really about, oh that’s a nice idea because they work in the same area. It’s like having too many potato dinners in a row. His work is observations of things in the world from a descriptive point of view. I’m very curious about the show but I think it’s a very honorable decision by Mark Webber to do it, someone who has a quite high reputation at this point. So it could work. The films are so different from one another and I’m glad I’m going first because my films are more delicate, perhaps more difficult in a way. So it could be an interesting show.
Nathaniel Dorsky’s films are distributed by Canyon Cinema in San Francisco and Light Cone in Paris.
Georgia Korossi is a film critic and curator based in London and Athens.