Nathaniel Dorsky films at Anthology Film Archives

Still from Sarabande by Nathaniel Dorsky, 16mm, color, silent, 15 minutes.

Anthology Film Archives will be showing many films by Nathaniel Dorsky next week. Films for the 4 October program are the most recent; I am not sure if some of them have been publicly screened yet in New York. More information here. Interview with Dorsky by Darren Hughes here. A couple of my posts on Dorsky here and here. These films don't come around that often, although he seems to be becoming somewhat better known. They are gorgeous and challenging works. Not to miss.

The films of Nathaniel Dorsky 2

I’d like to focus on some recurring qualities in Dorsky’s films that keep the mind engaged and in play in ways that are similar to Robert Irwin’s work. The examples come from four of the more recent films: Variations, The Visitation, Threnody and Song and Solitude.

One way the films lure us in is simply visual lushness. He loves pattern and textiles, and often highlights them. One section particularly, from Variations, is a whole sequence on men’s sport coats—plaids, stripes, etc—seen close enough that they pattern the frame and interact with each other. He also finds surprising and compelling images in everyday things, such as a doorbell or even a cigarette butt. Some images recur. He loves hands, for instance, and photographs them with reverence. It could be a man’s hands at a diner table, or a woman’s hand arranging jewelry in a shop window. He lingers over them, and gives us time to see really how amazing they are.

At times, though, we cannot understand or contextualize the image, at least not for a while. This disorientation also engages us, and maintains our participation in the film. He uses a lot of “all-over” shots, shots where the entire frame is occupied by a consistent or repetitive image, such as leaves, sand or, as mentioned, pattern. Other shots have surprising endings: a frame full of broad, vertical, unreadable forms, the shot tilts up slowly, until, after several seconds, we see…shower curtain rings. Dislocations like this have the impact of awakening our context-seeking faculties while frustrating our ability to lock in on the image and move on, go elsewhere mentally. We are presented with something we can’t recognize or categorize. We immediately seek references to place it—location, size, scale, time of day, anything—but these landmarks are not provided. Another penchant he has is for reflected images, which by their nature defy quick comprehension. He shoots into store windows and auto glass, often creating multiple reflections and layers. The depth of these images is remarkable, as complex and layered as I have ever seen in film. Given the frequency of this motif, it would be worthwhile to do a deeper examination of them.

There is more to say on Dorsky, particularly about the participatory nature of his films, his editing, and how this lines up with certain ideas about content, but too much for the space I allot myself today, so I’d like to substitute this wonderful, and perhaps tangentially related story, from Peter Greenaway’s documentary on John Cage. As this is from memory, please pardon transcription errors. In the film, Cage is recounting a conversation he had after a performance with an audience member. Soon after the performance had begun, the audience member became furious with it, stormed out of the hall and drove home in a rage. As he pulled into his garage, he thought, no, this is wrong, so he drove back to the hall and ran inside, but the performance was over, so he finds Cage backstage and tells him all this and says: “Oh, I am so sorry, because now it’s all over and I have missed everything.” “No, no!," Cage says, "That’s OK, that was all part of it!”

The films of Nathaniel Dorsky 1

The first thing, and perhaps only thing, one needs to know about Nathaniel Dorsky’s films is that they are ravishing. I had the pleasure of seeing them this summer for the first time, thanks to the generous agency of Charles Silver at MOMA. I only recently found out about Dorsky via this wonderful article by P. Adams Sitney in Artforum last winter. Amy saw it first and passed it over to me saying “you might be interested in this,” which I think she knew would be a gross understatement. This summer, I was able to see eight of his films over two afternoon sessions, four of them several times. They need to be seen more than once, and like any worthwhile work of art the films continue to give, change and challenge with repeated examination.

The second thing to know about his films is that they are silent. This is disorienting at first, but unlike other aspects of his films that continue to disorient, one ceases to note the silence after a short period. The silence leaves more mental space for the visual, and for the processing of questions, many syntactical, that arise during the viewing, but more on that later.

The third thing worth knowing is that the films are projected at 18 frames per second. It is an extremely fine difference, unrelated to object motion within the frame, but my sense is that this speed combines with the silence to create an atmosphere of measured majesty, subtly reifying the activities of persons, nature and machines, in concord with other aspects of Dorsky’s films that make us aware of our perceiving state by challenging our apprehension. More on this later as well.

One of the first challenges the films present is to ask us to see the world in a manner that takes us out of our quotidian myopia. To see through Dorsky’s lens is to see the incalculable visual richness that surrounds us, a richness we seldom have either the time or inclination to explore. One of the most memorable shots (from Song and Solitude, 2006) is a close up of a simple metal pull-chain from an overhead lamp. As it twists gently back and forth, the glare off the tiny globes of the chain blink on and off like a row of marquee lights. The shot lasts just a few seconds. The unpromising banality of the subject in combination with the pyrotechnic effect of the string of lights produce a disjunction that renders risible the frequent paucity of our perceptive world. (Another shot, from Variations, 1998, that of a plastic bag lolling in circles in the breeze, was surely the model for the similar, most memorable shot in American Beauty.)

This visual generosity would be reward enough in a film, but of course there are broader ramifications. What one does with this awareness is important—how the viewer participates and changes. A primary tenet of Robert Irwin’s work is the idea of the artist making the viewer aware of their own perception. This awareness carries over beyond the viewing experience, and can change not just the way we see but the way we think. I’ll continue with this later, and follow up on some other things begun, but at the start I’m deliberately limiting the length of posts, in recognition of readers’ internet proclivities and my own preference to build this project slowly.