Interviews | The Inmost Leaf: An Interview with Nathaniel Dorsky

By Max Goldberg

Our age does not really merit the richly endowed materiality of Nathaniel Dorsky’s short films, and yet they now arrive with greater frequency than at any other point during his many decades at work. His lyrical gifts were apparent from an early age—A Fall Trip Home (1964), made when he was only 20, has a delicate pathos uncommon for that era’s New York avant garde. Dorsky relocated to San Francisco in the 1970s and went unheard from until Hours for Jerome (1982), a dazzling tour of many years’ worth of intimate footage. Variations (1998) was the first film for which he shot fresh footage expressly for the open montage style (sometimes called polyvalent montage) he first envisioned in his twenties; at that point, what had once seemed a wayward filmography began to cohere. The intuitive congruence of cinematography and montage in the masterful films comprising his recent “Quartet”—and especially those three (Winter, 2007; Sarabande, 2008; Compline, 2009) through which he bid reluctant farewell to Kodachrome—breathes new life into the dream of a transcendental cinema. Dorsky’s late bloom has not gone unnoticed: his work has lately topped critics’ polls, been acquired by museums, and been featured in the New York Times and Artforum. At this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, he was doubly honoured with a Signals retrospective and a Tiger Award for Pastourelle (2010), his second attempt with colour negative stock.

Once engrossed in Dorsky’s silent cinema, however, the social world of reputation is suspended for the encompassing and intrinsically solitary experience of beauty. An initially modest view is transformed into exuberant vision on a wave of colour or a haptic notation of figure; this exuberance in turn becomes a kind of knowing in the open montage. Rilke proposed a similar course towards full apprehension in his letter to a young poet: “If you will cling to Nature, to the simple in Nature, to the little things that hardly anyone sees, and that can so unexpectedly become big and beyond measuring; if you have this love of inconsiderable things and seek quite simply, as one who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier, more coherent and somehow more conciliatory for you, not in your intellect, perhaps, which lags marvelling behind, but in your inmost consciousness, waking and cognizance.”

It does not seem so much of a stretch to think that some years from now people will continue to watch Dorsky’s films for the same reason that they still read Rilke: to be consoled by one so alive to ever-ripening reality. The avant-gardist distrust of beauty against which Dorsky’s book Devotional Cinema is implicitly poised typically assumes the viewer as voyeur, hidden from light and harm. But if you let them work, Dorsky’s films are experiences in vulnerability. They cultivate outstretched feeling states, a poignant relationship to time, and the recognition that our perceptual processes run a few paces ahead of our language. Before interpretation, one rests upon their “shining and transfigured” vision of the world—a vision not so different, perhaps, from the one William James ascribed to the recent convert.

The stakes of my own attachment to the films—developed over several years of ritualized screenings in the Bay Area—became clearer to me in Rotterdam, where every film I saw immediately following one of the Dorsky screenings looked like hell. The Rotterdam programmers smartly arranged the shows at a remove from external confusions: each show played in the same theater in the new Lantern Venster Cinema, far off from the festival centre and always at four in the afternoon (a kind of cinematic Vespers service, Dorsky joked). More importantly, the projection was flawless. More than ever for his last-chance dives into the swelling lower end of Kodachrome, the quality of projection is a basic issue of fulfillment. With film’s materiality increasingly other, there can be no question of taking these “merely” beautiful images for granted. Indeed, this should be a basic premise of all critical appreciations of Dorsky’s work: as he has given us a cinema which insists upon itself, we must insist on nothing less.

Dorsky wasn’t being flip, after all, when he answered a Rotterdam audience member’s slightly antagonistic question as to why the films aren’t available on DVD by saying, “Because they wouldn’t work.” He elaborated with a technical gloss—he considers DVD a primarily aural format—but he might well have added that the discs represent an acquisitive variation of the cinema experience, one at odds with the effusive nature of his montage. This is an especially pressing concern for the films of the “Quartet,” committed as they are to dissolving the hierarchy of background and foreground. One is struck straightaway by the opening shot of Sarabande—a shot of the sky (or: the moon through layer-cake clouds through winter tree branches through a gauzy black fabric)—that Dorsky is now able to accomplish with a single image what took several in Alaya (1987). In that earlier “duet” (Dorsky’s word) between the grain of film stock and photographed grains of sand, the fluid shifts in scale between distant desert dunes and the pale spectrum of individual pebbles recall two lines of Noël Bureau‘s poetry quoted by Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space: “He lay down behind the blade of grass/To enlarge the sky.” What’s remarkable about Dorsky’s cuts is their freedom from juxtaposition. There is great wit to some of the threads, but in general they’re aimed at retraining our mind’s eye not to read an image too quickly, so that we might first be absorbed by its graphic forms. The advancement in Sarabande is that with the play of textures now so assuredly nested within the image, the montage is free to enjoy itself—the sweet sensations of buoyancy and balance follow.

The overall diffusion of effect in these recent films makes the reappearance of certain Dorsky touchstones all the more substantial. To take but one example, the illuminations of reading and writing which appear in so many of his films by now register as anchors of reverie. Meanwhile, what are we to make of those newly fleet figures of exhilaration—a streaming green ray in Sarabande, a car hood beaded up with dozens of sun reflections in Winter, the moon’s final cry across the night hours of Compline—which thread the space between actuality and perception? Or of the many shots of nearly aggressive and certainly sentient vegetation which will not be contained by the frame? The camera is so enlivened by beauty in these passages that it forgets its duties of depiction, and so we in turn are given fresh possession of our attention. We’re brought closer still to the spark of the open montage, following the forms that perpetuate beauty rather than satisfying a predetermined lyricism. When Dorsky shows me some of the raw footage he shot in Rotterdam—a floating world—it becomes clear to me that the image won’t work for the montage unless there is a quality waiting to be regained. And so if watching the completed work we feel ourselves lightened by what Bachelard calls “the dignity of the admiring being,” then we’ve come to know something about how the film was made.

Cinema Scope: How does filming in an unfamiliar city like Rotterdam compare with going out with your Bolex in San Francisco?

Nathaniel Dorsky: You have to be careful because things are novel when you’re travelling. It’s like that title of Stan Brakhage’s, Glaze of Cathexis. The question is: How do you separate what’s simply new to your eye from that which will have a cinematic depth? No matter how conscious of this problem you are, it’s very precarious. Ultimately you can’t quite conquer it. Often when I get back footage from when I’ve been travelling, the initial screening experience is somewhat euphoric and narcissistic. Euphoric in the sense that it’s like a sporting event: you don’t know the outcome. I always have to look at it a second time the same day. Now all of a sudden the suspense and drama is taken away, and you’re left with the problem of art rather than the experience of life. It’s like having a videotape of a World Series game, and it’s a great game, but then you watch it again knowing the outcome, and those three or four dull innings that were amazing at the time, so full of potential, all of a sudden just aren’t so good…This is especially so with silent film. You could use so much more of my footage if it were sound because sound imbues an image with a kind of presence.

Scope: There’s a natural connective tissue.

Dorsky: It gives the film a social pulse. With a silent film, the way I work, I can’t use a shot unless it is doubtless. The back wall needs to fall out. There are shots that are very good, but they still have the back wall. In October, I went to Vienna and Prague showing films. I was very excited about the footage I shot in Prague for a while, but by the tenth time I looked at it, there may have been three shots that had some real, deeply self-existent cinematic presence not based on the sentiment. Because that’s the other thing, when you travel…

Scope: Your emotions are closer to the surface.

Dorsky: Yes, so I think you have to try hard not to shoot stuff that is emblematic—Euro-emblematic or whatever. It’s like how everyone has footage shot out of their car in their first film. No matter what the subject is, it’s still a shot out of a car—you can’t overcome that. The first time I saw this footage from Rotterdam, I cut out a quarter of it. Now we’ll look at it a second time. It will still be enjoyable for travelogue reasons for a while.

Scope: I’m thinking of the cut to snow in Threnody (2004) after these verdant shots of summer leaves. It’s kind of shocking, and there’s definitely a sense of mystery about the sudden change in place. Is this friction between different environments something you like in the finished film?

Dorsky: In that case, I don’t know if you noticed, but the next shot is of my friend Jerome writing the notes again. He’s first introduced three or four shots in from the beginning of the film. In reality, he was copying notes from a seminar on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. That was just a coincidence, but it was apropos to Threnody. So I knew that cutting to the snow was so odd that I couldn’t just go on to another shot. The shock brings you back to the note-taker, and then there is a two-shot coda after that. The syntax breaks with the snow shot, and then you re-establish the ground by reintroducing the character. Then you finish with a coda. In that case, the snowstorm came right after Stan Brakhage died. By coincidence I was in Boulder for a previously booked showing of films, and Stan died in Victoria a day or two before I left. This giant storm came, and I couldn’t leave Boulder for a week. When the film re-establishes the character after dropping down into the snow, it’s almost like snapping out of a tangential thought process. You floated off, and then you come back.

Scope: I’m curious to know more about your attitude towards human and animal figures in the films.

Dorsky: You mean characters.

Scope: Yes, I guess so.

Dorsky: I think most of the animals in the films are definitely characters. You know, they’re giving you good close-ups…

Scope: Especially the dog in Winter. I’ve seen that film four or five times now, and the dog always gets an audible reaction.

Dorsky: It’s so Hallmark. I had that shot, and at first I told myself, “I can’t use this shot…it’s so sentimental.” The reason I think it’s in bounds now, however, is because of the visual pun. There’s a long sequence of car lights, these luminous blobs in a black frame, and then you cut to the dog that is white with totally black eyes. So the reversal and the pun on headlights work. But these are the kinds of things that I don’t make up in order to do an impressive secondary text. They’re things that in the editing process I actually feel on a visceral level. If I didn’t really feel them, I wouldn’t do them. Most writers seem a little frustrated by me because they can’t get a good secondary reading. One thing that I find very endearing, though, is how much people in their twenties seem to like my work. They have no problem with the films.

Scope: The other thing with that shot is that we’ve been looking so intently, and so to all of a sudden have the screen look back at you is a little explosion.

Dorsky: I like the one in Variations—there’s a lad who looks back at the camera. To get back to your question, I think you’re asking what the place of character is in the films. I’ve gone through the whole spectrum with this. Hours for Jerome is very character, place, and story. It’s unashamedly that. Then when I did the series “Four Cinematic Songs,” Triste (1996) still has footage going all the way back to the early ‘70s. You still have a sense of life being all these little details, but that it’s also sitting with you right now. So the film also includes tea with a friend—that’s an aspect of it. Variations opens with Jerome sleeping, and then I think the teenager may be the only character as such, but he’s used in a way where, like you say, you’ve been looking the whole time, and now someone’s looking at you. I think all the other people in the film are observed, documentary-style characters. Then I made this film Arbor Vitae (2000), and it has a little montage of people waiting to cross the street in close-up. At first, people said that felt like a totally different film. To me, it didn’t. Maybe it’s because I see humans as primates. It’s almost spooky. Sometimes I tell young people to remember we’re a species. That helps. If you don’t have that, it’s madness. So anyway, Arbor Vitae has one shot which is maybe a little awkward near the end. It’s a portrait of Jerome. And then the film begins its coda. I often understand that I’m breaking syntax right before I enter the coda. A lot of the films have that in their structure. With the “Quartet” films, I moved completely away from character. Those films are very vegetable on the whole. Especially with Compline, Sarabande, and Aubade (2010), I wanted to move it to a more purely visual dance form, away from theatre. Once I started to get it that pure, the snap into theatrical or documentary flavour felt abhorrent. Now I find myself starting to shoot a lot of people again…I know that Van Gogh never confused the two. When he did a portrait, it was the human realm, the evocation of a human being. When he did a landscape, it was landscape as evocation of humanness. He understood they were different genres. So I’ve sort of exercised everything. The only thing I haven’t done, which is always tempting, is to make something completely in the human realm. But in a way, that’s already the way people think. Who needs that? After the last screening at Rotterdam, a woman kept pushing me, “Why don’t you use sound? It would be better if you had sound.” And I said, “Look, why does everyone have to do the same thing? It’s good for the world to have some people doing something different.”

Scope: But there are human figures in the “Quartet.” There’s the woman with the collar outside the café or the people exiting the revolving glass door.

Dorsky: That’s actually shot from up on the staircase in the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. In the afternoon, the sunlight comes down. I shot it out of focus. The other pink-collar shot was shot in their café.

Scope: Perhaps because we don’t see faces, I’m much more aware of how the silent speed has a very particular effect on the human figure in these films.

Dorsky: Well, you know, it’s a third slower, 18 frames per second compared with 24. You’ve heard me speak about this often. I do think it makes things gentler. It takes things a drop out of the representational.

Scope: Love’s Refrain (2001) has a very deliberate sense of climax following the shots of beat poet Philip Whalen in bed near the end of his life. In the beginning, the montage creates an expectant energy from shot to shot, and then by the end it’s more about the poignancy of leaving each image. It’s unmistakable when you do finally arrive at that closing image of the gulls over the water.

Dorsky: There’s another example of breaking syntax before the coda. There are three jump cuts of Philip, and then it cuts to a very disconcerting shot of a grate. It scared some of my friends at the time, and still does. They said, “You can’t cut from Philip to the grate, it’s too empty.” But when someone dies, that’s the way it is. Sometimes, there’s that emptiness, and then you slowly recover. In my mind, I wasn’t being rude to Philip.

Scope: With so much more abstraction of light and dark in the “Quartet” films, are you still able to place the origins of all the footage?

Dorsky: No. There are things I don’t remember. I photographed those films in Kodachrome, except for Aubade, which is shot in colour negative, and the custom lab that does the internegative conversion of the Kodachrome can take three months. Also, when you make the internegative, it transforms the footage a little. It’s this other thing. So between the three months and the slight transformation of the footage, there are many things I do not remember.

Scope: Is it exciting?

Dorsky: Yes, I like that. People sometimes say they don’t know what the images are, but I never think of that. I just know when a shot comes on and I feel there’s nothing distracting to its cinematic presence. The other thing with the “Quartet” was that I had already made films that invoked a certain stillness in the mind by keeping the camera still. So then I wondered how active I could be with the camera and still have a sense of non-dual, meaning that it isn’t so much that I’m moving the camera around either first-person dualistic, as in “I am lyric,” or third person, which I guess would just be excessive camera movements within the drama. For me, the screen itself has to metamorphose. I was just shooting the other day, and I got the shot so that to my eye at the time, the stuff that was out of focus became the dominant thing. The thing that would not ordinarily be the organizing factor became the organizing factor, and I moved in relationship to the recognition that this was what was really happening in the frame. Now I’ll be curious to see how it turns out when I get it back. I’ve been doing this since I was ten. I’ve taken so many pictures of things, and I’ve thrown out so much footage of things that didn’t quite make it, so I want to move towards something where I have to trust the adventure of it. It’s like being in a city you’ve never been before—you just trust that this is a little more exciting.

Scope: Are you at all excited to be working with the colour negative now?

Dorsky: Not really.

Scope: Are there things that were there in Kodachrome that are just no longer there?

Dorsky: When you have Kodachrome in your camera, you feel like a jeweller working with gold. You’re working with this very hot and precious transmutable substance. With the colour negative, it feels like a lesser metal. The new film will be a combination of the Fuji negative and the Eastman negative. I shot all Fuji negative in Rotterdam, which was interesting. Every day I was going to look at Dutch paintings. There are two famous Dutch painters, Jan van Goyen and Salomon van Ruysdael, and they always have a windy seascape, a landmass, a castle, and they’re painted in these tones of yellow, brown, and gray. The Fuji can’t comprehend colours as the sun goes down; it collapses into this reddish-brown. And so I saw the rolls yesterday—I said to myself, “Oh my God! It’s like a Dutch painting! The Fuji went Dutch.”

Scope: Did you set any limits on yourself in terms of what you were shooting when you first began filming for the open montage with Variations?

Dorsky: Well, I had been in an auto accident. It was a head-on collision, and I’d had a very bad concussion. For about three years, I couldn’t enjoy conversation. Hearing or speaking was very laborious, like walking uphill instead of on level ground. The only thing I could enjoy was walking out with a camera. So I tried to cop a very subtle avant-garde attitude—Triste still has that sense of alienation—and it felt abhorrent. I asked myself why did I used to love to do this, and I went back to when I was ten and just taking pictures of animals in the neighbourhood. So I actually went out to Golden Gate Park, and I started to shoot some ducks and swans on the water—breaking some avant-garde taboos. P. Adams Sitney will say to me, “Why are your films so unrelentingly beautiful? Make me more uncomfortable!” And I’ll say, “Well, I am making you uncomfortable!” Not that I don’t take these kinds of criticisms with some gravity because I think I have moved the films towards a more serious sense of beauty. But in a way, Variations was like the new bloom. It was very ten-year-old, very open.

Scope: Going back to let’s say your disappointment with the avant garde, did that cause you to forge stronger links between your work and other artistic forms outside the enclosed film world?

Dorsky: There are a number of things to say about this. When I was 19 or 20, I was very affected by going to all the avant-garde films. I was totally overwhelmed by Brakhage, especially, and became fascinated with the idea of someone trying to find an intrinsic film language. The idea that one person could make a film, that you could go out with a camera and be a poet, that seemed really big. At the same time, I was learning about world cinema. I was seeing Rossellini, Ozu, Ford, Antonioni, Satyajit Ray…So I was like Apollo being pulled by two horses. I had the third-person cinema that had space and time and heart and compassion to it, and then this other thing, the one-man band, where you could actually go out and make film as a lyric, intrinsic form. I remember being confused. I think that in a certain way my own filmmaking has been an attempt, not consciously but out of necessity, to marry those two forces. Could I make a film that was intrinsic but also had time in it?

Scope: Are there other ways you felt outside the predominant avant-garde currents?

Dorsky: In a way, A Fall Trip Home was very middle-class, actually suburban. A lot of things in it became common expressions for the next generation of filmmakers, where you make a film about your family and your home. There’s even a little bit of a re-photographed 8mm movie of my mom walking with me as a ten-year-old. But it was very askew from something like Flaming Creatures (1963). I didn’t have a problem with it, but I was not in mode with the avant-garde scene. And then I had a long delay from making films, which ended up being smart in a way. The avant-garde scene went from the most inclusive, wild place to the most restrictive. Like all revolutions that go from the left to the right, it eventually becomes middle-class, so now avant-garde audiences will applaud politely after the worst piece of crap. When I was young, most of these films were greeted with a competition of hisses and applause…Over the last ten years my filmmaking got better, but the recognition might not have happened from within the avant-garde. People who are responsive to art forms other than avant-garde film recognized my positive qualities. My own influences also come from experiences like going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and reading Chinese poetry from the T’ang Dynasty. Those taproots went deeper into me. Stan always used to say about his work, only time will tell if it’s art. It was a hard thing to understand when I was younger.