Monday, October 27, 2008

Film as a Human Song: Nathaniel Dorsky interview

By Elise Nakhnikian

“One of the reasons that I’m a late bloomer in terms of recognition in the avant-garde is that I broke the two biggest taboos: I included beauty and I included heart,” says Nathaniel Dorsky. “Heart especially is taboo.”

“Heart” is good shorthand for the organic feel of Dorsky’s mystery-rich, plot-free short films, which lead viewers into a contemplative state of heightened awareness. Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote that Dorsky’s silent films are “about as close as movies can come to evoking the experience of lying on your back in the grass on a summer day, gazing through leaves at the clouds and letting your mind drift into the cosmos.”

In a recent phone interview, the filmmaker described what he does as “trying to see if I can get film form itself to become a human song.

“In film, there are two ways of including human beings,” added Dorsky, who looks like an absent-minded professor but is refreshingly direct and partial to plain English when discussing his work. “One is depicting humans. Another is to create a film form which, in itself, has all the qualities of being human: tenderness, observation, fear, relaxation, the sense of stepping into the world and pulling back, expansion, contraction, changing, softening, tenderness of heart. The first is a form of theater and the latter is a form of poetry.”

In Dorsky’s films, a thing often appears as an abstract shape or pattern before coalescing into a familiar form, often because he shows it to us first out of focus, in extreme close-up, or from an unfamiliar angle. Being unable to name the thing you’re looking at makes you look at it differently – and more attentively – than you otherwise would. “I’m trying to create images that are a state of mind rather using pictures to represent language or an idea,” Dorsky says. “The idea is to see what is intrinsic to film itself: The language of the unconscious. Dream language.”

Summerwind, an early film Dorsky recently showed at the Anthology Film Archives in New York, was shot when he was high on LSD and is, he said, “in a way a reflection of that,” but it’s hardly the only one of his works that induces a trippy state of blessed-out hyper-awareness. His films find beauty everywhere, even in a shower curtain or a scattering of Styrofoam peanuts dancing in the wind.

Dorsky’s beatific images are generally taken from nature, often showing light that moves like a living thing. He’s also prone to layering images, and likes to shoot something moving in the background behind a still foreground. It’s all part, he says, of “trying to create images that are more state of mind – not using the screen as a stage where the bottom of the screen is the bottom of the stage. State of mind is very layered. When different layers of the frame are resonating with each other, then it starts to become a world in itself rather than a picture of a world.”

Dorsky, who is 65, began making films by instinct as a boy and started developing his philosophy of film in the early 1960s. As a young man who loved poetry, he says, “I became very curious to see if one could create film that could be a self-existent thing. I got some ideas from other people’s work – especially (Yasujiro) Ozu, whose work provided cues about a cinematic language which could reflect and promote human wisdom.”

Another epiphany came from a concussion he received in a head-on collision in the mid-1990s. While recovering, he says, “One of the few things I could do was walk about with my camera. I started to make an avant-garde film, and the idea of copping an attitude with the camera made me feel nauseous, because a concussion makes you feel like a child -- very simple. I went back to what I was when I was 10 years old and I started making films, and it all started to work. I got shaken out of my adulthood, in a way.”

Dorsky is teaching this year at Princeton University, where he’ll show his three latest films --Sarabande, Song and Solitude and Winter – next week. The clarity and passion of his vision and his talent for articulating what he and other filmmakers are doing probably make him a very good teacher, yet a campus is an odd setting for his work. “My films are not about being in school,” he says. “Being in school is about behaving well, being good for society. This is about what happens after school, when true adventure starts.”

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