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Harmonious Experiment

The films of Nathaniel Dorsky

Nov. 18, 2008
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Since the mid-1960s, Nathaniel Dorsky has made meditative films that reside in a quiet hermitage outside the camp of the avant-garde auteur. They attempt to eradicate the dominance of first-person perspective.

"There is something immoral about it for me," he says. "If I'm going to have people trapped in a dark room looking at a screen, it's kind of a dangerous, powerful position. I don't want them to see me. I want to offer something which enriches them."

Dorsky's films are an antidote to cinema's tendency toward hyperbole and overstimulation. Where most avant-garde films are variations on the endurance test (Warhol), an onslaught of seizure-inducing visual contrast (the flicker film) or the discordant collage (found footage), Dorsky's films are holistic collections of images that transition harmoniously from one sequence to the next. Crescendos of movement and light are slowly built through editing.

Dorsky's most recent films, Sarabande, Winter and Song and Solitude, draw latent beauty from even the lowliest quotidian objects. Winter evokes the sodden stretch just before spring around San Francisco. The lens captures post-holiday detritus, shiny bits of tinsel and a pine bough. In a flower shop, water droplets on cellophane look like dew on cobwebs instead of plastic suffocating severed blooms. The film is imbued with the optimism of the warmer months ahead. Sarabande's second movement begins with sunlight passing through stems of pale, lacy flowers swaying in the breeze. Later, reflections of shadowy figures in a pane of glass move across the frame, and the light passing through hints at the illusory mass of solid objects, creating a natural superimposition.

Internal Landscape

Dorsky is often compared to filmmaker Peter Hutton, but Hutton's films, while possessed by the same meditative mood, are more specifically about place. Dorsky's films, by contrast, are influenced by but not illustrative of a particular geography. Dorsky fragments and softens the whole, collecting external details that describe an internal human landscape.

Dorsky began making films in the early 1950s at the age of 10, inspired by a series of stop-motion nature films. As a young adult, Dorsky was influenced by two types of cinema, both narrative classics and the burgeoning American avant-garde.

"I fell in love with the [Stan] Brakhage type of cinema, where the camera is the protagonist, as they say-the poet-where one person made a film on their own expressing themselves visually," he says. "And then I fell in love with this other kind of cinema, which I felt had more heart. My own filmmaking became a way to resolve the struggle between these two horses pulling your chariot, the result of the tug of these two directions."

Dorsky abandoned sound after the completion of his first film trilogy in the mid-1960s. Influenced by the early work of Brakhage and due in part to its relatively low expense, Dorsky set out to make a silent film. For Dorsky, silent film possesses "its own blissful nature of articulation." Though he admits an early aversion to the emptiness of picture without sound, which he considers an acquired taste, "There was something about the silence which I took seriously," he says. "It made me participate with the film in a more serious way; I had to work a little harder. That relationship seemed more vigorous to me than one where you're spoon-fed a sound and picture."

Dorsky's other important touchstones lie outside the visual arts. Despite their silence, his films draw from classical music, something he finds rare among contemporary avant-garde filmmakers. Classical music, Dorsky says, takes "the form of music itself, and having it become an emotive human song. The music itself is the human metabolism. The music itself moves through the needs and despairs and hopes of the human psyche."

He speaks of his editing in terms of parts of speech. "In the shooting process, a certain kind of motion might unfold for its own reasons, and then when I edit, I like to use a combination of motion and stillness. The dynamic is like having a verb and a noun in a certain way.

"With Sarabande I actually tried to include my body more in the film," he continues. "I don't mean taking shots of my shadow, or my foot, but I felt I wanted to take the risk of bringing my body, meaning camera movement, into the film."

The challenge for Dorsky is in finding a way to move the camera without disrupting a relationship with the viewer, "the sublime union of camera, image, screen, audience, that union of camera to world. When film is great, there's a union of camera to world, filmmaker through camera to world, audience to screen. It's all the same thing. It's all one moment."

"Three Songs: recent films by Nathaniel Dorsky," screens at UWM's Union Theatre on Tuesday, Nov. 25, at 7 p.m.


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