Interview: Nathaniel Dorsky
Luminous Intimacy: The Cinema of Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler, a full retrospective of both filmmakers’ work, runs September 28 through October 2 as part of The New York Film Festival.
Raised in New York on a steady diet of Westerns and Disney True-Life Adventures, Nathaniel Dorsky started shooting 8mm movies at the age of eleven. In 1963, when he had just turned 20, he made Ingreen, a boldly symbolic psychodrama about a young man’s sexual coming of age. At that film’s premiere, he met soon-to-be fellow filmmaker Jerome Hiler, who would become his partner in life and a major inspiration for his work. (“We were filming for one another,” Hiler recently said.) In 1971 the two moved to San Francisco, where they’ve lived ever since. Around the same time, Dorsky entered a decade-long creative silence. He returned in 1982 with Hours for Jerome, a 55-minute feature compiled from footage shot between 1966 and 1970. Like all of Dorsky’s subsequent work, it’s a kind of cinematic lyric poem, entirely silent and rooted in a centuries-old tradition of devotional art (in this case, medieval illuminated manuscripts and prayer books).
The rest of the Eighties found Dorsky experimenting with new forms and materials: 1987’s Alaya was made up entirely of footage of shifting sand, and 1983’s Ariel, which had a rare public screening at this year’s New York Film Festival, is a beautiful hand-processed film full of thin, tremulous vertical lines and see-sawing horizontals. It was with 1996’s Triste—edited from over 20 years’ worth of footage—that Dorsky, as he once put it, fully arrived at “the level of cinema language that I have been working towards.” Since then, he’s made 16 luminous, description-defying short films, each with their own distinct tones and shadings. In films like Compline (09), August and After (12), and his two most recent titles, Spring and Song, Dorsky creates what he’s often called a “floating world,” in which street scenes, household interiors, meadows, rivers and forests are transformed into playgrounds for light, color and shadow. In a field often dominated by frenetic cutting and/or prolonged stasis, Dorsky’s films unfurl gradually but steadily in a kind of hushed suspension. They’re often attempts to do with light and texture what, in his book Devotional Cinema, Dorsky praised Mozart for having done in key changes and melodic lines: to “wed [a] style to the human metabolism in every detail.”
I spoke with Dorsky in a tree-lined lawn at Lincoln Center during the 51st New York Film Festival, where his work was screening in Views from the Avant-Garde. He is warm, generous, and contagiously relaxed. After a hectic and occasionally nerve-fraying stretch of festival coverage, watching Dorsky’s films can feel like therapy. “As a filmmaker, you have to be a great host,” Dorsky said at one point in our conversation. In person, he’s no different.
At last year’s Whitney Biennial, you said something to the effect that your films were “about aloneness, and about sharing aloneness with the audience.” Do you shoot with an eye towards sharing your private, solitary experiences with others, or do you prefer to get lost in your own perceptions and hope that something relatable will come out?
The second. It isn’t that you’re trying to express aloneness, because then that wouldn’t be aloneness. You would only be expressing a concept of aloneness. Because in English the word “lonely” and “alone” are somewhat similar, they get confused. They’re actually quite different. “Lonely” refers to believing in yourself as separate from the world. You’re lonely because you’re separate from the world, or from other things. Aloneness is a realization that everyone is in the same boat; that everyone is actually alone. One of the deepest and most magical mysteries of human life is that we’re alone, and yet we’re together. Everyone we see around us in this courtyard [gestures around] is the center of their own world, has their own set of problems with their relatives, with their job, with their roommates, with their lovers, with their childhood. Everyone has their own huge drama, and yet all these dramas overlap in the same space of human interaction. We’re all mutually alone.
August and After
In literature, everyone is very used to the idea of a novelistic form, which is usually a third-person form involving characters who have problems and resolve them, or not. On the whole, poetry has not been a third-person form. None of these are absolute by any means, but poetry tends to be more an expression of individual mystery. It’s the same thing in film. Because making film is expensive, film was used primarily for third-person dramatic purposes, because it was commercially more viable. There was more return for your money. At the same time, the film industry which came out of that situation enabled people with more poetic inclinations to use film as poetry. I guess this goes all the way back to Méliès, and the whole French lineage in the Twenties and Thirties.
I feel that I’m very much part of this poetic lineage: a cinema that is about aloneness. At a certain point in life, I think you realize—or discover—that the more intimate you are, the more you reveal your innermost secrets, the more universal you become. You’re being true to your core, and that core is not so basically different from other people’s cores. So to be a filmmaker, then, you have to have the faith that your own vision can be comprehended by other people. If you’re trying to make films for other people, you’re in trouble. In most of the films—especially, of course, films that are based on the return of capital—every effort is made to make the film for other people. It’s very seldom, except with the supreme geniuses of narrative form, that any kind of truth or vulnerability comes out. Rossellini, Ozu, Bresson, to name a few, have had that courage to express themselves as who they are. That’s the beginning of an answer.
It’s an interesting paradox, that you have to dive very deep into yourself to arrive at something that can be shared with others—and something that others share.
Otherwise you’re manipulating others, or showing off for others. So many films, especially in the experimental realm, have one idea, and the film just goes on and on: “Here’s my idea.” There are also many films which are less meaningful to me because the moves made on them come from the outside. The filmmaker is always outside the film declaring the next thing, as opposed to letting something that’s established in the film declare the next thing. When, as a filmmaker, you’re always declaring the next thing externally, pushing the film; when your hand is always coming in and moving the film this way and that way, you can be very impressive, like a juggler, but you’re actually not helping the people. Ultimately, you’re distracting and depressing them. It can be magical and wonderful and thrilling. But there’s something about allowing the vulnerability of a film to unfold out of its own needs that goes deeper.
Is the distinction maybe that in some films, each new development is driven by the film’s own internal logic, whereas in others each new development doesn’t follow necessarily from what came before?
Yes. For instance, during the period of the Ingrid Bergman films, Rossellini was well known for not having a script, for writing the dialogue in the moment. He was in the situation and had the trust to let the magic ferment and happen.
Voyage to Italy
For me at least, though, some of the most transcendent moments in cinema are the result of a director imposing something onto the film that wasn’t there to begin with. I’m thinking of the end of Voyage to Italy, for instance. It seems as if the movie’s logic doesn’t allow for that final moment of reconciliation; it has to be imposed from outside. It’s a miracle in some way.
And it’s a strange miracle. The film is basically a long argument, but it lets that argument resolve in a way that’s pretty much within the established language of cinema: a couple kissing. It’s a strange moment, because you believe it and you don’t believe it. Then, of course, he cuts to a final shot, a shot of almost nothing: some kind of a capitano standing off to the side, with people walking back and forth in front of him. It’s a very emotional moment for me. Then the film continues as black leader, and the music also continues for at least another half minute or more, in black. So it isn’t that he tried to manipulate you, that he hermetically sealed up that manipulation and gave it to you as a closed package which you had to buy. It’s much more open and interesting than that. It’s quite true to life.
He lets the miracle ripple out in the world.
In the black leader, yeah.
I just saw Bergman’s The Magician for the first time.
Oh, I haven’t seen that since I was your age.
In the last shot of the film, after this long series of escalating humiliations, most of the movie’s characters are packed into a caravan riding away from the camera. And Bergman lingers for maybe 20 seconds on a lantern as it swings back and forth. He’s spent the film piling up all these contrivances, and now he’s letting them have their effect on the world. It seems to me, though, that your films rarely make this move of putting something in from the outside.
Well, the images and I, we cooperate. We try to work together. Ultimately, they’re the boss, and I’m more their servant. You bring them some water, or remind them that they have an appointment in an hour—that kind of thing, that they are too late or too early. I think that, in my films, I’m trying not only to express, but also to bring about and nurture wholeness in the audience. It’s a very delicate thing to do. You have to be extremely polite. As a filmmaker, you have to be a great host. You invite people in, you have them sit down, you bring them a drink when they need it, and so forth. There’s a slow ripening and nurturing which takes place during the linear time of the film. I think if my hand came in and you felt it, it would produce a concept. It would break the spell. It would be like saying something in the process of making love. If you’re making love well with someone, it’s all…
It’s non-verbal, right. And the words are…
Almost an insult, or a kind of violation.
Yes. I think in some way, there’s that same violation when you try to manipulate the film.
Anticipation of the Night
At the same time, in a movie like Voyage to Italy or Ordet, that final moment of manipulation feels necessary. Up to that point, there’s been some kind of gap or absence in the structure of the movie, something that can’t be satisfied by what’s already there and has to be actively filled from the outside. In your films, it’s as if the world that you create—or the world that you see—is already complete. You can get to a kind of wholeness without making such an intrusive move.
Well, for instance, let’s say you’re with a friend. You could be doing anything: looking at a painting in a museum, or going for a walk on a nice day. How do you point something out to them without breaking the bubble? If you say, “Oh, isn’t the sky beautiful,” or, “I love the way those trees look,” it can be quite destructive in a subtle or not so subtle way. But there could be a moment when you tap someone on the elbow, flick your head a little bit, and just assume that they’re also there. In other words, there are ways that you could direct someone without taking over and collapsing the moment. I think when you pop the bubble, you’ve taken over the space. You’re saying that your mutually shared reality is now my language.
You want to preserve the experience as it exists in both of your heads. You’re aware that it’s the same experience, but also that it’s a different one—and by assigning a word to it, you might be conflating the two in a way that doesn’t exactly work. You’d be making it too objective, too clinical.
At the same time, you want to be generous, to reach out.
It’s a very delicate thing. What I love about the cinema is that you can take people on a journey without breaking the bubble. I think that, when you’re trying to make a film, you want to give this sense of going with the audience to some place neither of you have ever been.
In my case, I trust that the accumulation of the images over a certain period of time has some kind of resonance, because I’ve collected them out of my interests. But when I start to build the film, it’s really a question of finding an image which is like the door to the film: you present the doorway, then the welcome mat, and then you enter. From there, it isn’t like, “I know where we’re going, and I’m going to take you there.” It’s more like, “I don’t know where we’re going, and we’re going to have this adventure.” That’s how the films are edited: there’s a first shot, and then there’s a question: where do we go from here?
Do you always edit alone?
Usually when I’m almost finished, or when I feel that it’s pretty close, I have two to four different friends who I’ll show it to individually. They’re usually friends who I can reveal myself to without feeling at all self-conscious. Not an iota of that, or it wouldn’t work. Just looking at the film with another person is a little bit like a bullshit test: when the other person is there, the little lies you tell yourself become more apparent. When you’re editing a film, you have to be very truthful to yourself. Very truthful. We all lie to ourselves. We cut to something and we wish it was good. It’s almost good, and we want it to be good, because if it was good it would be very convenient. Those little lies are very subtle, and whenever one remains in one of my films, it’s like [makes sharp, rebuking alarm noise, like a buzzer going off].
For instance, there’s a shot I would take out of Song. It’s something I added near the end, and it would have been quite complicated and expensive to take out. I just said, well, I’ll leave it there for a while. It’s similar in life—if you’re in a relationship, for instance, it’s like every time you fake slightly, every time you say “yes, dear,” or something. Film is a kind of exaggerated mirror of yourself. All you can really do is try to be honest and then look at that honesty, and the film will give you the feedback right away. Filmmakers who don’t improve, I always think that they don’t see their films honestly. How could you see that and honestly think that’s worthy? You know that’s dishonest.
This kind of honesty seems to me like a necessary condition for the type of open sharing and communication you spoke about earlier. But what we’ve been circling around is to what extent that type of communication is possible, when it often tends to involve subsuming each person’s individual experience under concepts that don’t really fit it. How do you think your films address this problem?
I think that first of all, you have to establish the image. And if you establish an image which is in essence a visual representation of an idea, you’re already in trouble. In terms of film narrative, there’s obviously a logic to the progression; in that case, your honesty is to a place, and to the nature of human character. That’s where your honesty has to be, and where you have to control your own vanity: say, by passing up the chance to take a great shot when it wouldn’t be intrinsic to the need of the characters or the story, or by letting things decay into violence—something all too common in film now. But in film poetry, what I’ve come upon is that as soon as an image is in itself an image of something, then it’s already connected to concept and language. Steve Anker, who ran the San Francisco Cinematheque for maybe 25 years, said to me once—I hate to say this kind of thing but he said: “Why were you the first person to actually make a film that was actually visual? It seems so obvious!” Of course, many films are highly visual in some sense, but their basic organizing principle and driving force is not visual.
Now, this is a delicate, subtle subject. But let’s take Stan Brakhage, who for me is a great paternal example of individual filmmaking. I first saw him when I was nineteen and he was speaking at a film show at midnight at the Bleecker Street Cinema. With Stan, there are areas of kinesthetic magic and accomplishment, which are just extraordinary and totally unapproachable, and then sometimes there’s a level of meaning which all the visual stuff rests on or is expressive of. And occasionally, I don’t feel it’s completely integrated. It’s compatible, but there are occasional points when the pure cinematic areas become exemplars of the meaning. One is walking a razor’s edge as a filmmaker, and it is easy to fall from the sublime to the effortful. Sometimes I feel that with Stan, the visual elements and the meaning are not of the same world. And then at other times, they’re unified in a way that no one else could do.
August and After
As for myself, I was trying to see if there was a way I could take meaning, which was at the same time vision, and not have the vision be an ornament to meaning. The vision had to be meaning, but it also still had to be vision.
When I came upon Stan, he was only 10 years older than I was, but had already made Anticipation of the Night, Window Water Baby Moving, Sirius Remembered, and…
The Dead, yeah. And wow, the prelude to Dog Star Man. So he was already quite something, to say the least. I was drawn to the romantic idea that one person could go out with a camera and sing their song. That was very inspiring: if you had a couple hundred bucks, you could make a film. At the same time, I was learning about world cinema. I was a projectionist at a course at the New School for about three years in a row. It was taught by a very wonderful man named Joseph Goldberg, and it was kind of a world survey of film which was at that time considered very significant. I was seeing things like Pather Panchali and My Darling Clementine, Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, Rossellini’s Paisan, great films. I was drawn by the depth of heart in these movies: how spacious they were.
I was really torn between these two things. It was like Apollo being pulled by two horses. There was this individual, poetic, romantic Brakhagean kind of first-person self-expression, and then there was this other thing which had to do with extreme compassion and tenderness of heart. They seemed like two different things to me. I got genuinely confused. I think that my filmmaking, not by intent but by circumstance, has been—I didn’t realize this till late; it wasn’t a self-conscious thing, believe me—some attempt to bring together those two lineages.
I love Brakhage’s films, but there is something—in some way amazingly, and in some way disturbingly—solipsistic about them. There’s a sense in which everything he looks at is exactly what he wants it to mean, or what it means to him. Whereas in films like Pather Panchali and Paisan, the whole idea, at least on the filmmakers’ parts, is to break out of their own heads, to…
To be selfless.
For Brakhage, filmmaking was a manifestation of himself—but it wasn’t in a selfish way, because he was interested in how the human mind in general expresses itself using vision. When it came to my own filmmaking, though, I’d be pulled one way, then I’d be pulled another way. There was a lot of struggling. One could admire and love Stan, but one couldn’t be Stan. At a certain point, I began to feel where the alchemy was; I realized how you could do those two things. For me, it was a kind of dangerous thing to do. Within the avant-garde, it was sort of a suspicious.
Because you were professing such a close tie to narrative cinema?
Well, yeah. I would say that things are quite different now, but at that time, when the avant-garde was in its American adolescence, it was rebelling against the power of the parents: Hollywood, “narrative cinema,” you know. My own feeling is that cinema’s strength is in its narrative form, and I mean that in a very wide sense. What I mean by narrative is that it enfolds through its own needs; it develops out of itself. There are a lot of films within the American avant-garde, let’s say, which are a reaction against narrative: you could have only one shot, or some other kind of structuralist thing. But I ultimately find them to be experiments in possibility. They don’t have fruition for me.
You need an emotional narrative, if not a literal narrative of events and scenes.
Yeah, it’s emotional, or something that activates and stimulates you. You want to activate the audience so it’s interesting for them. If you present them a problem already solved or already limited, they have nothing to do.
Maybe it’s a matter of finding a balance between taking in the world as if it were a movie playing inside your head, and dissolving into the world to the point of losing your own particular perspective on things.
Between Eastern and Western philosophy, this is one of the basic questions: does the world exist outside yourself, or is it all in your mind? And it seems to me that it’s only concepts which create that problem. Actually, it’s more magical than either of those points of view. It’s unfathomable. If you could understand it, imagine how dull life would be. At a certain point, you have to realize you’re in the midst of a deeply magical and completely mysterious adventure. I don’t mean to sound sentimental.
Not at all—was it Brakhage who called it “an adventure in perception”?
Yes. There’s a point in life when you realize that when you’re generous, you have more. People think that if you’re generous, you have less. But at a point, when generosity really awakens in your heart, then you have the whole world.