Songs of devotion

Pub date December 5, 2006

Accessible to anyone who might be interested in a deeper understanding of his or her own senses, Nathaniel Dorsky’s book, Devotional Cinema (Tuumba Press), explores the physical properties we share with the film medium. Within the book, Dorsky draws upon films by Roberto Rossellini, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Yasujuro Ozu, and others to illustrate his insights on filmic language. But if another person were capable of writing Devotional Cinema, he or she could just as effectively draw upon Dorsky’s films, which connect intrinsic facets of cinema to intrinsic truths about human experience.
Capable of discovering at least half a dozen fields of vision (or planes of existence, or worlds) within a single shot, Dorsky’s films can fundamentally alter — and heighten — one’s own perception, and his editing skill, tapped by many local directors, is as fundamental to his work as his image making. Sam Mendes took American Beauty’s floating bag sequence from Dorsky’s Variations, which he read about during filming. (Dorsky has noted that the image isn’t a new one — and it isn’t necessarily the richest among his luminous, phantasmagoric visions.)
In conversation with filmmaker Michelle Silva of Canyon Cinema, Dorsky paraphrases the observation of his friend, anarchist writer Peter Lamborn Wilson (a.k.a. Hakim Bey), that we’re trapped in a “light age” of meaningless information. “In the dark ages, there were little areas of light, where there might be alchemical investigations,” Dorsky says. “Now we have to find little areas of darkness.” This week brings an opportunity to explore those little areas, at a San Francisco Cinematheque program that will present Dorsky’s three most recent films, Song and Solitude, Threnody, and The Visitation, in alphabetical and reverse chronological order. (Intro by Johnny Ray Huston)
SFBG I remember running into you last year when you might have been shooting Threnody. You were in Chinatown perched right over a parking meter, and you had your camera hidden underneath you. You were so still I almost didn’t notice you — you were blending in with the background. I started thinking about the rules of quantum physics and that it’s impossible to not affect the object that you’re observing. Yet you seem to manage to do just that in your films — you don’t disturb the environment.
NATHANIEL DORSKY If you’ve ever gone into the woods and sat very still for half an hour, all the animals will come back and gather around you. You have to be part of the inanimate world, so the animate world can feel relaxed and come around. Also, you can find these little psychic backwaters on the street — there are places where the energy doesn’t quite flow, and you can kind of tuck yourself [within those places]. It has to do with the angle of the light and so forth.
SFBG My interpretation of your film Song and Solitude is that it is like a silent odyssey through shadow words and the introverted psyche. There are several masks and layers of reality that you’ve collapsed into one. There’s a depth of field in many shots, and the different layers aren’t aware of themselves, while you’re aware of all of them. Could you talk about your visual language in the new film and your state of mind while making it?
ND There are a number of things involved. One is that I’d made a film right before [Song and Solitude], called Threnody, which was an offering to Stan Brakhage after his death. In that film I was trying to shoot images while I had a sense of Stan looking over his shoulder one last time while leaving the world, having one last glance at the fleeting phenomena of life.
Song and Solitude I made along with a friend, Susan Vigil, who was in the last year of her life with ovarian cancer. [She’s] a person who was extremely important to the San Francisco avant-garde film community and helped support the San Francisco Cinematheque throughout the ’70s and ’80s. She was a wonderful, wonderful friend. She came and looked at camera rolls every Friday when I’d get them back from the camera store. There was that atmosphere going on of being with someone so close who was also involved in a terminal illness. But also you might say that with Threnody the camera was placed somewhere back around the ears looking out of your head. In Song and Solitude I actually placed the camera in a sense behind my own head — for a feeling like looking through your own head out [at the world].
Most of my films are more about seeing or about using seeing as a way to express being. [Song and Solitude] is more about being, where seeing is an aspect of the being. The world is seen through the whole fabric of your own psyche as a foreground. Through that foreground exists the visual world, almost as a background.
I also wanted to see if I could photograph things which you’d traditionally call nature and things you’d call human nature with the same primordial sense, to see the slight rub of what human nature is and what nature is, where they are similar and where they feel different. How is muscular movement different from wind? I wanted the film to rest in a very primordial place in its visual essence.
SFBG One time I was questioning you about why we torment ourselves making films, and you said, “It’s to attract a mate.” Could you elaborate on that?
ND I myself met my friend Jerome, who I still live with, on the night that I premiered my first film, when I was 20. So in a way it happened right away for me. But I’ve worked for many people in the film industry as an editor, especially in the area of documentary, and at least three or four times I’ve worked for someone who was looking for a mate.
Once, a friend, Richard Lerner, was producing and directing a film on Jack Kerouac called What Happened to Kerouac?, which I edited. It came time to write out an enormous check to make a 35mm print from the video material. He was really hesitant, and he was single at the time. I said, “Don’t worry. There is no way you won’t get a permanent relationship from this film.” He got irritated, because it was something like the third time I’d said that to him. But a woman approached him after the film premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and they’ve been married ever since.
That has happened with at least four other filmmakers. I worked with Kelly Duane, who made a wonderful film [Monumental] about David Brower, the guy who radicalized the Sierra Club. She was single. She met someone when she showed the film in LA at an environmental film festival, and now she’s married and has a child.
SFBG Is that why you’ve earned the reputation of being the editing doctor of San Francisco?
ND Yes. I work for a lot of single women.
But to answer your question in a more simple way: birds sing, and every February or March a mockingbird always appears in my backyard and sings all night. If it’s a bad singer, there can be trouble. One bird three years ago was not a good singer. It sang from February until the first week of July before another bird sang along with it — then it disappeared. But sometimes they sing for four nights, and it’s over. They’ve gotten someone, because they’re really good singers.
SFBG I’d never thought of filmmaking as a mating call, but you’re right.
ND Many people don’t understand that, and they try to win their mate by making horrible and aggressive conceptually based films. No one is drawn to them, and then they get even more conceptual and aggressive. It can be a downward spiral.
It’s difficult, because you’d think anyone who’d want to make a so-called handmade film would do so to have complete control of the situation. It’s also a chance to make a film that isn’t based on socialized needs. When you make your own individual film, it’s generally an opportunity to be completely who you are and share the intimacy with someone else. In my experience, the more purely individual a film is, the more universal it is. The less successful attempts at filmmaking occur when people are trying to make something which functions within the context of current belief systems. It’s like trying to get a good grade in society, even if it’s alternative society, rather than actually taking the risk of letting the audience feel your heart and your clarity and [to] touch them with that.
SFBG We might be in a dark age in architecture, design, fashion, and everything that involves representing ourselves visually. Aesthetics are ignored, intellect isn’t challenged, nor is spirituality. In contrast, all of those things are at the foundation of your work. Does it bother you that the audience is small?
ND I’m not sure. I’m 63 now, and in the last few years while showing my films in Europe and Canada and the US, I’ve noticed that people in their 20s are really loving them. There’s some kind of interesting face-off between my own generation and people who are in their 20s now.
Within the avant-garde there’s the virgin syndrome, which is that every showcase will only show a film that’s never been screened before. Everyone wants a virgin for their temple. A good avant-garde film is made to be seen 10, 15, 20 times. But because of the virgin syndrome, because they only sacrifice virgins at the temple altar at this point, audiences rarely get to experience a film a number of times.
SFBG Lastly, I want to ask about the roles of silence and sound in your films. Do you prefer silent films?
ND The first time I saw a silent Brakhage film, it seemed quite odd. If you’re used to having sugar with your coffee and someone gives you coffee without sugar, you might find it strange. But you can also get used to it, so that when someone puts sugar in your coffee it seems sort of obnoxious.
It’s an acquired taste, silence, definitely an acquired taste. But once acquired, it has many deep rewards. For one thing, a sound film is more like sharing a socialized event, where to me a silent film is more like sharing the purity of your aloneness with the purity of someone else’s aloneness. The audience has to work a little harder, of course, to participate — everything isn’t just spoon-fed to them. But if they do work a little bit harder, they’re more than rewarded for that effort.<\!s>SFBG
Sun/10, 7:30 p.m. (sold out) and 9:30 p.m.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF
(415) 978-2787
For a longer version of this interview, go to