Friday, March 7, 2008


Last Friday night the WHC featured the films of Nathaniel Dorsky, an avant-garde filmmaker whose career began in 1964. The four films I saw comprise a series that Dorsky made from 1996 to 2001, collectively entitled “Cinematic Songs”: Triste, Variations, Arbor Vitae, Love’s Refrain. All four, shot in 16mm and shown at 18fps rather than the 24fps of sound film, follow much the same format: silent, no soundtrack, comprised of discrete shots or brief clips that have no direct continuity with one another. Watching the films is at times like watching a slide show in which the subjects of the individual slides move and the slides vary in their duration and during which the camera can move. And of course the switch from shot to shot creates juxtapositions, “sequences” of a sort. But there is no narrative, no logical connection between scenes.

The images themselves are fascinating, beautiful, compelling: a plastic bag blowing at random over a space of sidewalk, buildings dissolving in the penumbra of tree branches shaking in gusts of wind, rain on surfaces, on windows, light, of all kinds in all places, animals appearing suddenly in their gestalt purity, cars moving in slow motion or, in one lovely, estranging sequence, shown in negative crossing a bridge, street scenes, street crossings, umbrellas, trains, an almost dreamlike sequence in which one contemplates the shadow of an overhead train as it passes over a network of girders below -- one shot particularly striking is from above some people on an ocean overlook while a long, beautifully formed wave streams into the scene converting the water’s surface to foam: it’s not simply that the wave does its job well and is wonderfully picturesque; the foreground of lights and darks where a few figures look over the wall or walk along the walkway glows with late daylight and the angle of the shot is such that the wave extends beyond the frame above and the wall below. There are any number of moments like this. Time and again Dorsky shows himself a master of framing, of depth of field. Another favorite was an insect crawling along a garden hose that is running. The shot is in closeup and the hose and the water seem to form an unbroken continuity except that one part is solid and one part is in motion, emptying to the right of the screen. Enter the insect from the left, crawling, as we watch fascinated, toward the tip of the hose only to stop just at the threshold between solid and liquid.

The visual poetry of these films is like nothing I’ve ever seen in movies, to this extent, and the sheer visual pleasure they afford struck me in two ways: in the first place, it made me think of my own engagement with the visual properties of the world. I found myself contemplating how one first experienced light on water, shadows on surfaces, rain, insects, birds in flight or walking, cars and other shiny objects as reflective surfaces; the films seemed to bring to mind the mind of a child, simply fascinated by what he sees because he is seeing. There needs no explanation or excuse for looking, for watching light change, or, as it were, grass grow. The level of fascination one finds in the images Dorsky records I think has to do with one’s ability to recall those initial moments of wonder in the face of the world’s variety of color, movement, shape, illumination.

Then there’s the second thought that occupied me at various times: why is it that cinema, as it is generally practiced, is so incapable of such contemplative moments of pure imagery, of just letting the camera run to catch the light of day, the signs of the weather, the actual flora and fauna of the setting -- those things that poets attest to the sublimity of time and again, and which was once the province of the brush of the representational painter, willing to make the viewer stand in a certain place and see a view of the world? Why are our images so often at the service of story?

As one who was always able to stand long and rapt before amazing handling of paint as a rendering of light, and who was disappointed by cameras that never seemed able to render the subtlety the eye is capable of, and who has always appreciated random moments and shots in narrative films that serve no particular purpose but simply give us something memorable to look at, I am grateful to Dorsky for these films, and to the Film Study Program at WHC for showing them.

Elle est retouvée!
-- Quoi? -- l’Eternité.
C’est la mer mêlée
Au soleil.


Andrew Shields said...

One of the things I like about Jarmusch and Rivette is their willingness to let the camera just look at things (and people). The example that crosses my mind immediately is from Rivette: the repeated shots (in "Secret Defense") of the Metro running at night, which do not serve the narrative but contribute a great deal to the overall effect of the film.

Donald Brown said...

Yes, I think in almost any great director there are moments of contemplative camera-work. I need to see more Rivette -- he has a new one coming out shortly, "The Duchess of Langeais."

Andrew Shields said...

I just read about that new Rivette, too. It's a version of a Balzac story.